North East Goes Saffron?

RSS, BJP face challenge in Nagaland and Mizoram, better off in Meghalaya, Tripura

By Asit Manohar

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 government in Assam helped the party 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 (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.

MEGHALAYA METAMORPHOSIS

As per Census 2011, Meghalaya has a population of 29.67 lakh out of which 74.59 percent are Christians, 11.53 percent are Hindus and 4.4 percent are Muslim. 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. 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.

“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 organizationally 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.

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. 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 from Shillong.

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 organization, it is well aware of the bottlenecks that it faces in the state. 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.

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 not dream of ever ruling Meghalaya will get fulfilled nor will RSS do justice to its existence in the state.

TRIPURA TALKS

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. Tripura doesn’t have a single BJP legislator in the present Assembly. The CPI-M has 49 members, Trinamool Congress six, Congress four while the CPI has a single seat. 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 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.

Often known for his frugal lifestyle, Tripura CM Manik Sarkar has successfully converted the state into a Left bastion after taking over in 1998. Sarkar in his consecutive fourth term as CM 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.

“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. 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 organization. There is no help for each other. Whatever benefit is there politically it is by default and not organized. But it has to be kept in mind when the BJP was weak as an organization in the state, the RSS network was considerably strong. People from different walks of life are actually willing to join the RSS,” BJP’s Tripura Prabhari said.

Although the Census 2011 puts Hinduism as the majority religion in Tripura with 83.40 percent followers, it was a thorny path for the Hindu organization 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.

“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 organization. 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

There is a deeper cause why the BJP is getting an edge because of the RSS. 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 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 organization rooted in the Hindu ideology, what has caught the attention of the RSS is some allegedly forced conversions into Christianity of a section of tribals. For now, the larger the RSS grows in Tripura, it potentially strengthens the BJP even more.

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 organization 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. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram made efforts to popularise her work across the country in an effort to establish connect with the Naga people,” Das said. The association is linked to the RSS and runs hostels for students in Dimapur, the business capital of the state. However, the organizational weakness of the RSS in Nagaland is evident from the fact that as of today it has only two shakha running in Dimapur.

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.

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. 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.

The state faces Assembly poll towards the end of 2018 and going by their organizational strength it is unlikely that either the BJP or the RSS would be able to penetrate so deep to have any real political impact.

FUTURE AHEAD

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 organizations 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.