How the RSS grew roots in the North-East

Smita Gupta | Updated on March 09, 2018

Road to victory For the just-concluded elections, several former swayamsevaks were drafted to lead the campaign in Tripura. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar   -  The Hindu

In focus: In Meghalaya, the RSS operates largely in the Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills   -  Ritu Raj Konwar

Ongoing battle: While the centre favours granting citizenship to Hindu Bengalis who migrated into India from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971, the AASU considers this a violation of the Assam Accord   -  The Hindu/Ritu Raj Konwar

Decades of hard work, behind the scenes, by RSS workers have laid the ground for the BJP’s electoral successes in the region

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s parent organisation, made its début in the North-East barely 10 months before Independence.

Three pracharaks — Dadarao Parmarth, Vasantrao Oak and Krishna Paranjpe — arrived in Assam on October 27, 1946, and went on to establish the first RSS shakhas in Guwahati, Shillong and Dibrugarh. Since then, scores of faceless RSS cadres have worked painstakingly to make inroads in a region where ethnic diversity and large minority populations should have been a deterrent for those seeking to create a Hindu nation.

For, according to the 2011 census, 34 per cent of Assam’s population is Muslim, while five other North-East States have large Christian populations — Nagaland (87.93 per cent) Mizoram (87.16 per cent), Meghalaya (74.59 per cent), Manipur (41.29 per cent) and Arunachal Pradesh (30.26 per cent).

But the RSS has grown steadily in the North-East, demonstrating not just persistence but also adaptability and pragmatism. It has, for instance, put the issue of beef, which is part of the diet for a large section of the people here, on the back-burner, even as it runs a virulent and vigorous campaign against its consumption elsewhere in the country.

Today, 72 years after its quiet beginnings in the North-East, the RSS can claim that it has played a significant role in powering the BJP’s recent electoral successes here, especially in Assam and Tripura.

Two years after RSS pracharaks first arrived in Assam, Eknath Ranade was posted as the North-East’s Prant Pracharak. He set up several Vivekananda Kendras in the region, for the “cultural expansion” of the RSS, as well as seven residential schools in Arunachal Pradesh.

That network has expanded today, with shakhas, Vivekananda schools, balwadis, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas, tuition centres, study circles, vocational training centres and a hospital. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), which works among tribal people, runs eight hostels, 42 nursery schools and coaching centres, holds medical camps and sends tribal teams to out-of-State sports events.

To reach its current status in the North-East, the RSS has passed through several phases: when it started out, its pracharaks began by building local relationships through Bengali settlers and Bihari and Marwari traders, sensing an opportunity in the friction between the local ethnic population and the migrants. But by the 1970s, the RSS had realised it would not be enough to just engage the “outsiders”; it needed to establish links with the local populace.

The organisation then turned its energies to “reworking” the region’s religious fault lines, choosing to describe its effort as taking a “radical view on infiltration” and “correcting distortions”: it now began to target Bangladeshi Muslims who were streaming in, while extending support to the Hindus among them, labelling them “refugees”.

Turning point

This came into play during the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) agitation: the RSS deployed its students’ wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), purportedly to prevent radical political groups from steering the agitation towards the demand for an independent state. Even as the AASU demanded that the names of Bangladeshi migrants should be deleted from the electoral rolls, the RSS sought to keep only the Muslims among them out.

Ongoing battle: While the centre favours granting citizenship to Hindu Bengalis who migrated into India from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971, the AASU considers this a violation of the Assam Accord   -  The Hindu/Ritu Raj Konwar


This battle continues to play out even today: while the Central government favours granting citizenship to Hindu Bengalis who migrated from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971, the AASU considers this a violation of the Assam Accord. Local RSS leaders say they have assured the Hindu Bangladeshis — largely concentrated in the Barak Valley — that they will not be disturbed. If the RSS became active in Assam during the AASU agitation, it began functioning actively after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

Then, in the ’80s and ’90s, its work among the tribal people increased through the VKAs it had established in the tribal-dominant States of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram. This period also saw the RSS, through its affiliates, beginning to sponsor the education of students from the region who came in touch with it in mainland India. Some of them went on to become top political leaders, especially in Arunachal Pradesh, where Hindi is widely spoken, thanks to a conscious government decision following India’s Chinese debacle in 1962.

In Tripura, the RSS, which had set foot in 1956, found it hard to expand. In the 1980s and 1990s, its cadres clashed repeatedly with members of the Tripura National Volunteers and the National Liberation Front of Tripura. This came to a head in 1998 when four RSS workers were kidnapped and killed. Even though Tripura is an overwhelmingly Hindu State, the CPI-M’s strong presence here put the brakes on RSS growth till recently.

By the mid-’90s, the RSS began to take strong roots in the North-East: in 1998, a BJP-led government came to power at the Centre, giving the RSS an opportunity to further expand in the region. In January this year, the Luitporiya (Sons of Brahmaputra) Hindu Sammelan was organised in Guwahati. Traditional tribal kings and heads of several tribes, including the Khasis, Misings, Hajongs and Tiwas attended the sammelan addressed by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. As many as 35,000 swayamsevaks from all the States in the region participated in it.

In focus: In Meghalaya, the RSS operates largely in the Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills   -  Ritu Raj Konwar


For the just-concluded elections, several former swayamsevaks were drafted to lead the campaign. In 2014, Sunil Deodhar, who had joined the RSS in 1985, was made in-charge for Tripura, while two RSS alumni, now both BJP general secretaries, Ram Lal and Ram Madhav, were deployed to plan the campaign, along with Himanta Biswa Sarma (who had quit the Congress to join the BJP before the Assam elections). Madhav and Sarma supervised every move in the State, and Deodhar camped in Tripura for 500 days to implement their plan. The total convergence between RSS cadres and BJP workers helped breach Left bastions. The RSS’s work for these elections began in 2016, when Prachar Pramukh Shankar Das sent 250 workers to Tripura: soon, the number of shakhas zoomed to 250 from the 80 in existence in 2015. Indeed, it is the RSS’s boots on the ground that eventually helped breach the Left citadel of Tripura.

The RSS’s approach traditionally has been to seek “solutions” for local problems that can be meshed with its nationalistic ideology. But in Nagaland, with its long history of secessionist movement, and the pending demand for a Greater Nagaland (which seeks a huge chunk of territory from neighbouring Manipur), it has to move with caution.

The strategy

So in 2014, the RSS, rather than get embroiled in an intractable problem, demanded that Rani Gaidinliu, the legendary Naga freedom fighter, be given the Bharat Ratna. Simultaneously, it continued to reach out to various tribes through a network of affiliates, including the VKA.

The RSS also found an old friend in Padmanabha Balakrishna Acharya, who was appointed governor of Nagaland in 2014: he had started out in the ABVP and was active in the North-East in his student days, helping to establish the “My Home is India” scheme, through which students from the North-East were taken to different parts of the country in an effort to mainstream them. Later in 1980, he joined the BJP and was made in-charge of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland in the late 1990s/early 2000s. With the lines blurring between constitutional, party and sangh positions, Acharya’s presence in Nagaland at this time was opportune.

In Meghalaya, the RSS operates largely in the Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills: it has been focussing attention on Bangladeshi migrants who marry local girls and “take advantage” of the matrilineal system to set up businesses. In its bid to reach out to the Christians, the RSS is running four book banks, even as it helps organise health camps across the State. It has also organised processions to honour Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who continues to be something of a local hero.

If the BJP’s election machine has worked overtime in the North-East, long years of hard work by RSS workers, behind the scenes, have laid the ground for the party’s successes. The results are there for everyone to see.

Two years after the BJP swept into power at the Centre, it replaced a 15-year-old Congress government in Assam in 2016. In 2017, a BJP-led post-poll coalition ousted the Congress, which had ruled Manipur for a decade, and, earlier this month, the party ended the Communist Party of India (CPI-M)-led Left Front’s 25-year run in Tripura. This, even as it helped put together governments led by regional parties — of which it is a part — in Nagaland and Meghalaya.

Of these, the party’s resounding victories in Assam and Tripura are the most significant. In Manipur, the Congress emerged as the single-largest party, but the BJP, which came in second, persuaded smaller parties and independents to back it. The governments formed in Meghalaya and Nagaland have more to do with clever post-election manipulation than any serious electoral advances made by the BJP.

But taken together, they have certainly changed the optics, and given the BJP something to counter those who dismissed it as a party of the Hindi belt.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based political writer working with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy

Published on March 09, 2018

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