Sunil Deodhar loves his pork. A key political strategist, Deodhar, a Chitpawan Brahmin from Maharashtra, is widely seen as the man behind the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) astonishing victory in the leftist bastion of Tripura during the state polls in February 2018.
“Yasmin deshe hi yo jate: tazz tasyovaya hitam (Medicines of a particular country are the best cure for ailments in that country, a Sanskrit shloka that comes closest to mean ‘while in Rome, do as the Romans do’). We consume everything. I have had wild rats in Meghalaya. I find gahori (pork in Assamese and Nagamese) very delicious; it is one of my favourite food. But I have reservations about beef.”
This coming from Deodhar, who joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when he was a mere child before being catapulted to assume party roles in the BJP, only underscores the relentless ambition of Sangh policy in the Northeast, which is to get into the grassroots at any cost.
In traditional Brahmanical or Vedic Hinduism, pork is something that is almost abhorred; although contradictorily, the tusked boar, or varaha, is worshipped as one of the ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu.
“Yes, we eat pork or rice beer whatever we are offered. Jaise desh waisa bhesh (adhere to the country’s rules wherever you reside). Where is the difficulty?” asks Atul Jog, an engineer who gave up his cushy job to dedicate himself to Sangh work and is now one of the top office-bearers of the Akhil Bharatiya Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (ABVKA), an organisation affiliated to the RSS that works with the tribal communities across India.
Northeast India is home to many ethnic communities and tribes—major, big and small—where besides Hinduism and Christianity, numerous traditional faiths and belief systems with their own unique culture and norms coexist.
The RSS and its Hindutva affiliates are making significantly deep inroads into the many tribes and ethnic communities that make up the Northeast by trying to hoist, at least, 109 existing indigenous faiths in a strategic bid to counter evangelical Christianity. This is also to say that the emergence of BJP governments in the region’s states is not a mere accident or coincidence.
In December, the ABVKA organised the National tribal games in Sonapur, near Guwahati, which was attended by about 3,000 sportspersons. Incidentally, it was the first time that the games were being held in the Northeast. On the sidelines of the sports meet, a meeting of delegates representing the 109 ethnic faiths was held.
Says Jog of the Sangh’s expanding network in the region: “There are about 250 Sangh pracharaks, ABVKA has about 400 full-time workers, and there are other affiliated organisations too. So, there are a total of about 2,000-2,500 workers in the Northeast. Some are running schools while some are into religious activity.”
Chandan Kumar Sharma, head of the sociology department, Tezpur University, explains, “The non-acceptance of pork and liquor by Hindu missionaries/workers in the past in tribal homes was an obstacle in getting closer to the tribals. It was, however, not an obstacle for the Christian missionaries, who followed this with many other social services, including expansion of education and health facilities, which helped them in attracting tribals to their fold.”
Saying that the changes are part of the proselytising mission in recent times, Sharma questions the move: “Merely having liquor and pork by Hindu activists will not be enough. They also have to follow the footsteps of the Christian missionaries. But why can’t the Indian state take up strong measures to preserve their culture and heritage? While Christianity has done a lot for the social development of the tribals in northeast India, the latter have lost their culture and heritage in the process.”
Like Deodhar, beef too is taboo for Jog. “We don’t consume beef and the tribes know it. We refuse with respect and they acknowledge it,” he says. “Nowadays even they (the tribes) understand. In the past, there was no alternative to such food. But now even they are realising the importance, utility and significance of raising cows—something that they have also started. Take for example, in the Tangsa community in Arunachal Pradesh, there is a group called Raangfra, which is trying to encourage vegetarianism.”
Pointing to “similarities” between the cultures of the tribes and Hindus, Jog says, “The Donyi-Polo faith (the cult of the sun and the moon) in Arunachal are very much a part of Hindu culture; I don’t think that they are at all different. Even the Bodos, who worship agni (fire god) during full-moon nights. So, if you look closely, there are so many similarities. There are certain superficial differences, but that is the beauty of traditions.”
Stressing that “a Hindu is not determined by what he or she eats or doesn’t eat, Jog says, “In the ethos of Sangha or ABVKA, whoever respects other sects, and words and ideals of ancestors is a Hindu. We pursue inclusivity. In the Northeast, there are communities with only a thousand members or lakh. We want the identity of every ethnic group intact. Everyone cannot be same; the beauty lies in their variety. We believe and respect that.”
Rejecting the Sangh view, Sharma says, “All such tribes following such religious practices have been traditionally enumerated as Hindus in the censuses. Sociologist GS Ghurye defined them as ‘aboriginal or backward Hindus’. Others have called them ‘vanavasi Hindus’. Within mainstream India, there have been interactions between the Hindu society and the tribal groups. In case of northeast India, however, it will be preposterous to suggest that the Nagas or Mizos or Adis have anything to do with Hinduism.”
Both Deodhar and Jog have worked in the Northeast for, at least, a decade each. Between them they speak a variety of languages and dialects like Assamese, Khasi, Jaintia, Angami Naga, Manipuri, etc.
Asked if there is a dilution in their organisational code of conduct, Jog retorts: “There is no dilution. When food and drinks occupy primacy, there will be dilution. Our main aim is the preservation of the identity of these ethnic communities.”
It’s a classic ‘Who am I?’ riddle for the genuinely puzzled Dhireshwar Basumatary. “We perform two kinds of puja at home: a Hindu one in which where we eat mutton in the community feast, and a Bodo one which involves killing a pig. So, am I a Hindu?” the 45-year-old taxi driver in Guwahati asks.
A Bodo tribal from Assam, Basumatary’s predicament is a familiar one for the many tribes and ethnic communities in the states of Northeast—retaining vestiges of their ancient traditional faiths that remarkably coexist with the adopted forms of organised religions like Hinduism or Christianity.
And it is in this complex milieu of belief systems that the RSS and its affiliate organisations are investing in a major way; so much so that Sangh workers have evolved a distinct set of unstated rules to operate here like eating pork or even partaking of the traditional rice beer—essential ingredients in most tribal ceremonial rituals, but unthinkable in puritanical Hinduism, something that the Sangh swears by.
The changing attitude is due to the spread of Islam in Assam and Christianity in the other states of the region.
Efforts of Deodhar, Jog and others are winning support too. Lozhoho Khanyo, an Angami Naga who is the chief coordinator of Japfuphiki Pfutsana Keseko (indigenous faith society organisation of Angami Nagas), says, “Conversion to Christianity in my tribe (Angamis) has taken place in the last 100 years or so. Only about 30 people are left in my village who practise our traditional faith, or the ‘Pfutsana’ cult, which practises ancestor worship. We are just about 300 in number across the tribe.”
From Viswema village, 19 km south of Kohima, Khanyo was educated in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. “The entire idea of ABVKA is to preserve our traditional culture and belief system.” The only member in his family who has not converted to Christianity, Khanyo says, “I have not converted out of self-belief. My late father, my mother, brothers and sisters all converted.” He is full of praise for ABVKA. “Every ethnic community is trying to codify laws, customs, traditions and rules today. ABVKV is helping in the logistics.”
Suryanarayan Suri, pramukh of Purvattar Janajati Dharma Suraksha Manch (a forum to protect the religions of tribal communities in the Northeast), says, “Faith is the soul; culture is the body. Our aim is to protect, promote and preserve traditional belief systems which are no different from Hindi beliefs.”
When asked about his caste, Suri quips with a flash of anger: “People of all castes are working here, but we are all Hindus. The first priority is the tribe. There are contradictions everywhere but we have to reconcile.” Working in the Northeast for the last eight years, Suri hails from Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. Like Deodhar and Jog, he also speaks a bouquet of tribal languages, including Angami and Zemi Naga.
So how real is the threat of evangelical Christianity in the Northeast?
“The church has been working in the Northeast for about 212 years; so they are reaping the fruits of their labour… but the basic difference between the church and us is that it is keen to convert while we do not want to change anyone’s religion. We support preservation of one’s distinct identity and culture. Every community has a right to preserve, protect and promote their own faith, culture and tradition. There is nothing wrong in that. I come from Maharashtra and I worship Ganesh-ji, but I will not impose Ganesh-ji on anyone else. In the Zeliang Naga community, they worship Tingwan; so, when they pray, I also pray to Tingwan and feel the supreme being’s presence,” says Jog.
The religious norms of mainstream shastric Hinduism, like other religions, and the traditional ‘Hindu way of life’ represent the culture of a patriarchal, feudal and a settled agrarian society. Despite such a broad framework, Hindus have always been culturally heterogeneous.
“However, there is a recent tendency to impose one set of norms and parameters to define Hinduism on the basis of the cultural practices of the dominant segment of the Hindus. On the other hand, the traditional tribal culture represents a consumption-oriented and egalitarian society. In northeast India, most of the tribal communities have also been practitioners of a shifting cultivation which has its own distinct cosmology. Moreover, historically most of these communities enjoyed political and cultural autonomy which helped them preserve their distinct traditional customs from what is understood as the ‘Hindu way of life’,” says Sharma.
It could easily be an adaption of the textbook theory of ‘Great Tradition (GT)’ and ‘Little Tradition (LT)’ when staunch RSS men working among tribal communities in Northeast India imbibe tribal traditions in a bid to counter the perceived threat of an evangelical Christianity.
The GT/LT approach to understand the cultural context of social change within a great civilisation like India is a construct of anthropologist McKim Marriot. He saw the mainstream Brahminic Hinduism based on the principles enshrined in the religious texts as constituting the ‘great tradition’. In other words, it is the tradition of the literate elites (upper-caste Hindus). On the other hand, ‘little tradition’ is constituted by the traditions of non-literate folk people who far outnumber the elites.
The GT/LT tradition dichotomy may be seen both within a region (for instance, the Gangetic Valley, which is the heartland of Hinduism) as well as between regions (for example, between the Gangetic Valley and the Brahmaputra valley). Marriot was, however, careful in pointing out that there is continuous interaction between the two so that many great traditional elements are absorbed within the LT and vice versa.
Offering an example, Sharma says, “While the Mahabharata is a great traditional text, many stories within the epic are drawn from various, little traditions. Another example could be the Rama Katha traditions which exist among various tribal communities, even within northeast India, in different forms.”
“However, there has been a tendency in recent years to undermine this cyclical nature of relationship between the two traditions within the broader Indian civilisation. There has been a concerted effort to impose the dominant (great) traditions and cultures on the smaller groups representing the marginal (little) traditions. In the context of northeast India also, there has been a similar effort at Sanskritising the little traditional elements. It has been a part of the nation-building exercise in the region. But it is a nation building exercise which is seen through the prism of a homogenised Hindu India.”
Admitting that the Northeast has been a priority area for long, Jog says, “On the whole, our work in the Northeast has been increasing and expanding. We work in every district of the Northeast. We work in with tribe in greater or lesser degrees. We have reach everywhere and the good thing for Kalyan Ashram is that local workers have come up everywhere. This is the result of our work in the last 30-40 years. Although we have an anti-Christian image, we are support indigenous faiths; we definitely want to protect them. Forced conversions should not happen.”
Indeed, the Sangh’s efforts may be bearing fruit and many are convinced. “Our culture is very rich. Preachings like ‘Do not steal, do not lie’ are old. There is nothing new in the organised religions,” says Khanyo, who plans to soon launch a platform under which all indigenous faiths in Nagaland can be organized with support, of course, from ABVKA.
Khanyo was one of the leading organisers of one of the biggest conferences of the Heraka faith that was organised on January 30 and 31 at Tening village, in Nagaland’s Peren district, where Nagas of various indigenous faiths gathered with special guests, including RSS top brass like Ulhas Kulkarni and Kshetra Pracharak for the Northeast region.
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