Little elbow room

Little elbow room

The BJP’s remarkable performance in Assam has fuelled speculation about its likely moves in the three Northeastern states – Manipur, Meghalaya, and Mizoram – where the Congress is in power. In Manipur, where elections are due next year, the BJP has performed well in last November’s byelections and the recent local body elections while the three-term Congress government is grappling with dissent.

The RSS and the BJP have tried to connect with the North East’s indigenous communities by campaigning against “illegal” (Muslim) immigration. However, the Manipur Valley is demanding entry permits for all outsiders, including non-Manipuri Indian citizens, along the lines of the inner line permit (ILP) system followed in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland.

There is little elbow room for the Sangh Parivar on issues such as Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA), which is universally hated in Manipur, and the ILP, which has bitterly divided the hills and the valley.

Moreover, there seem to be limits to the RSS’ ability to engage tribes as it does not approve of their dietary preferences, norms about gender relations, and the adherence of many of them to Christianity. Assam provides some clues to how the Parivar might tiptoe through Manipur’s minefields.

In Assam, the Parivar managed to transform anti-immigrant sentiment into an anti-Muslim immigrant sentiment. A similar strategy might be attempted in Manipur, where Hindus are the largest group and Muslims are about 8% of the population and there might have been some immigration from Bangladesh.

However, the long history of harmonious relationship between the Meitei Hindus and Meitei Muslims and almost stable population share of the latter suggests that communal polarisation might not yield electoral payoffs. In fact, this strategy might have failed even in Assam if the Assamese Muslims were a majority within the Muslim community.

The other aspect of the BJP’s campaign in Assam was its focus on tribes. The electoral importance of tribes is masked by their small share in Assam’s population (12.45%) owing to the denial of tribal status to many communities. The BJP promised tribal status to all such communities and also more support to autonomous councils and district councils of communities already recognised as Scheduled Tribes.

Together, the recognised and unrecognised tribes constitute between a third and a half of Assam’s population. The BJP engaged tribal organisations and political parties ahead of elections and also roped in its leaders and allies from the neighbouring tribal states to campaign for it. The BJP-led alliance won 14 of the 16 ST seats with the BJP alone winning eight seats, and gave Assam its first popularly-elected tribal chief minister.

In Manipur, the BJP is likely to strike local bargains with tribal organisations and Valley-based political parties instead of appealing to the people of the state as a whole. It could approach the hill tribes, which dominate one third of the seats, with the promise of enhanced autonomy and financial support and endorse the demand of sections of the Valley, who are otherwise not enthusiastic about the RSS’ Hindu agenda and are inclined toward an indigenous Meitei religion for tribal status.

The Naga peace process could be delayed to avoid irritating the Valley, which controls two-thirds of the 60 seats, and the Kuki tribes, which dominate nine seats and can influence a few others. On the other hand, the government has started talks with Kuki insurgents.

There is another channel through which the RSS, which is usually portrayed as a threat to indigenous culture, is expanding its reach. The RSS has not been successful among the Christian tribes. Likewise, the Church has not been successful outside the hills or among communities that have an “indigenous” religion. Manipur’s valley is mostly Hindu and its hills are almost entirely Christian.

Indigenous tribal religions
The RSS has figured out that indigenous tribal religions could serve as allies. The neglected and beleaguered religious minorities too need allies. The Church cannot relate to, let alone accommodate, tribal religions, whereas the Hindu tradition is plastic enough to allow them different degrees of engagement with the orthodox religion. Ironically, this allows the RSS, which otherwise promotes a narrow version of Hinduism, a lot of flexibility in engaging these religions.

The relationships between the RSS and indigenous religions range from mere alliance against the common enemy to cooption within the Hindu fold. The engagement of the RSS with Heraka religion of the Zeliangrong community of Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland and the Donyi Polo religion of the Mishings and Adis of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are among the best known examples of such relationships, which reconfigure the indigenous religions.

While the numerical strength of active adherents of most indigenous religions is negligible, supporting them provides the RSS a respectable entry into the Hills and among the tribes. The opponents of the RSS find themselves in a bind because the objections against the Hindu RSS’ forays apply equally to the activities of the other non-tribal religions. The RSS has learnt to play the indigenous card.

Moreover, the RSS has not put all its eggs in one basket. For instance, it celebrates the Heraka leaders as tribal heroes independently of their religious moorings. Jadonang and Rani Gaidinliu are projected as icons of the Heraka religion as well as the Rongmei and related Naga tribes. These tribes dominate three reserved seats of Tamenglong district and could play a decisive role in a few seats in the Manipur Valley.

The Congress and others do not seem to have worked out a response to the multi-pronged socio-political activism of the Sangh Parivar. Whether Manipur will be the next Congress domino to fall will depend on the BJP’s ability to attract dissenters from the Congress as in Assam and to campaign among various communities of this bitterly divided state in isolation without getting entangled in inter-community disputes.

(The writer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)
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