For decades, the BJP and the RSS worked hard to build a narrative of majoritarianism in Assam though Hindutva did not work as an ideology in Assam. It worked on creating a fear that Hindus would become a minority, says SANDHYA GOSWAMI, former Professor of Political Science at the Gauhati University. This is an excerpt from her book, Assam Politics in Post-Congress Era: 1985 and Beyond, published by ‘SAGE and Stree-Samya Books’.
HE Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in the Lok Sabha elections 2014 brought back a new version of single-party dominance in Indian politics. It is no doubt related to the creation of a coherent narrative of the nation, which the Opposition in its entirety has failed to build since 2014.
The BJP and its allies have spent decades building a narrative of majoritarianism that has come to fruition now.
The BJP’s dominance originated in a strongly personalised leadership and it is also deeply entwined with an ideological insistence on Hindutva discourse, though meanings and emphases in the Hindutva discourse have kept shifting.
The resurgence of Hindu nationalism was a defining feature of Indian politics in the 1990s. Although the ideas and organisation associated with the trend have roots in the early 20th century, yet they were politically marginalised for much of the post-Independence period.
Even in the 1980s, the party was at the periphery, capable of winning only two seats in the 1984 parliamentary elections. Yet by 1991, the BJP was the second-largest party in the country and by 1998 it was leading the ruling coalition.
Perhaps more important, the ideology of Hindu nationalism or Hindutva (literally ‘Hinduness’) has become part of the ideological mainstream.
The precipitous rise of Hindu nationalism in Indian politics can be explained in large measure by the changing attitude of the state leaders towards secular ideals of the Nehru period (Hasan 1990). The commitment to an inclusive social order, however, faded with Nehru’s death in 1964, especially after the Emergency period.
The Congress party thereafter sought to co-opt the rhetoric and symbols of Hindu nationalism for electoral consideration. Although majoritarian strategy worked for the Congress party in short term, most particularly in the party’s 1984 electoral landslide, it had dire consequences later on. By overturning Nehruvian consensus, the Congress leaders helped to disassemble the secular norms that had governed Indian public life for most of the post-Independence era.
The communalisation of Indian politics under Congress rule in the 1980s perhaps helps to explain the dramatic and rapid nature of the BJP’s rise in Indian politics.
THE BJP’S RISE IN ASSAM
The ideology of Hindutva does not have much appeal in Assam as in the northern part of India for its uniquely different population composition, culture, history, and belief systems.
Moreover, the spread of Vaishnavism, particularly in the valley areas, contributed significantly towards the softening and, in many cases, obliteration of many inegalitarian social practices, rituals, orthodoxies and dogmas of Hindu caste system in the state.
As a result, cultural organisations like the RSS, from the very beginning, adopted novel strategies customised to the complex particularities of this region in order to establish itself in the cultural and political imagination of the people.
Moving away from its standard techniques of mobilising support through the invocation of Hindu stereotypes like ‘Ram’ or ‘Ayodhya’, it instead has focused on the adaptation of local cults and symbols such as those associated with Kamakhya and Sankardev, namely the Sattra tradition.
Further, the presence of a considerably large population of Muslims in the state, and the rising alarm of the natives to the accelerating influx of immigrants from Bangladesh, provided a tailor-made ground for the RSS to operate in the region.
Together these provided a congenial climate for the burgeoning of Hindutva in the region. Further, the proselytising activities of the Christian missionaries among the tribals in the state since the colonial period gave the RSS an opportunity to play its anti-Christian card on the basis that Christianity has lured them to adopt a foreign culture and religion, thereby drawing them away from their traditional faiths.
On these arguments, Hindutva seemed to have succeeded in gaining ground in the tribal regions of Assam, through the social work of its affiliate, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA). It appears that the VKA has been increasingly active in persuading tribals to eschew tribal religious practices in favour of Rama and Hanuman Puja by establishing a large network in the Adivasi areas.
Though the RSS entered Assam as early as 1946, it could not create a significant impact, in the beginning, owing to its unpopularity fostered by the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a former RSS member in 1948. Thereafter, it concentrated mainly on strengthening its organisation by creating networks through local notables, opening ‘shakhas’ (branches) and consolidating its activities.
The 1950 earthquake in Assam provided the RSS one of its initial entry points to this region, when it undertook extensive relief work for the earthquake victims. The language agitation of 1959–1960 provided another opportunity to the RSS in the state, especially in building its support base among the Hindu Bengalis.
Thereafter, in the late 1970s, the Assam Movement finally set the hard-wearing ground for the growth of Hindu nationalism. Pralay Kanungo remarked, ‘Hindutva, in terms of strategy, shows admirable powers of adaptability-swinging from volatile and violent, to soft and silent—depending on the specificity of the context’.
THE REGIONAL CONTEXT
The spectre of illegal migration has long haunted the state of Assam and it remains one of the most contested issues in the politics of the state since the days of Partition. What is essentially a national issue has been allowed or encouraged to become an ethnic, linguistic and communal issue of the state by the governments ruling it at different time points.
The Assam Movement against the foreign nationals issue thus provided a regional context with a broad ‘national’ appeal and it also befittingly fell within the framework of the BJP’s ideological assertion of Hindu national identity.
The BJP’s rise in the 1990s was also marked by two distinct political developments: the decline of the Congress and the emergence of some new state-level parties.
The emergence of regional and ethnic parties in the late 1980s in Assam has further contributed to BJP’s rise. The BJP has flagged the importance of the immigration issues in all its elections since the late 1980s as the regional party AGP. This particular issue has become the most important issue for the RSS in the state.
The insecurity aroused by the immigrants, particularly among the Assamese Hindus, has been subjugated largely by the RSS activists, who have time and again highlighted this problem as ‘a threat to national security’. The RSS has used this sentiment to spread its tentacles in the state and build up its organisation slowly.
Although initially the Assamese Hindus from Brahmaputra Valley did not support BJP, yet the party’s continued emphasis on illegal migration gradually changed the mindset among the middle class since the 1998 elections. The party began to resonate the demand of the AASU and AGP after coming to power at the Centre in 1998. Thereby, the party was able to make a dent in the Brahmaputra Valley for the first time in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections and gradually expand its support base.
Apart from other factors, the BJP’s rise could be attributed to its promise to repeal the IMDT Act, thereby allaying fears of the indigenous Assamese being wiped out.
The BJP slowly ‘hijacked’ the issue of illegal migration from the regional party AGP, which was born in 1985 as a result of the long-drawn Assam Movement for the expulsion of illegal foreign nationals from Assam. While other parties, both national and regional, have failed to address this issue concretely, the BJP took the opportunity to project itself as a party capable and credible enough to resolve this unaddressed issue.
The BJP realised the fact that the state could be an ideal ground for its growth as it has a ready-made line of polarization between the Muslims of East Bengal origin on the one side and the Assamese-speaking Hindus on the other. Besides, the hill and plains tribal communities have also united on the illegal migrants’ issue.
The Congress government, both at the Centre and in the state, showed apathy towards resolving the issues of deportation and detection of illegal foreigners. As a consequence, the focus of the party has shifted towards the issue of Muslim population increase in the state.
There is a strong belief among the Assamese Hindus and tribal population that ‘immigrants’ would outnumber them, like in Tripura, where tribals have become a minority.
The vision document released by the BJP during the 2014 elections contained a separate section on ‘North-East’ with the promise to put an end to infiltration from Bangladesh.
Even during an election rally held in Silchar (a Bengali Hindu migrant-dominated constituency), on 22 February 2014, Narendra Modi as a PM contender from BJP asserted, ‘There is no place of infiltrators from Bangladesh who have come to further vote bank politics agenda of others. They should be sent back. At the same time, not Assam alone but all states must accommodate Hindus coming from Bangladesh and offer them a life with dignity’. Apart from Modi’s charisma and vision for development, the party also strives to highlight the ongoing problems of illegal migration and their repatriation to Bangladesh once the party gets power. As expected, the party could attain desired results in the 2014 elections.
(Sandhya Goswami is a former professor of the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University, Assam. Currently, she is engaged with a rural-based NGO, SeSTA, working on social issues such as women’s empowerment, literacy, livelihood, and social justice. Her principal research interests include democracy, election studies and social movements. The views expressed are personal.)