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hindutva and northeast

The Rise of Hindutva in India’s Northeast

Arkotong Longkumer’s book, The Greater India Experiment: Hindutva and the Northeast, published in 2020, presents crucial ethnographic research on the rise of Hindutva in Christian-dominated Northeast India.

This book examines the nuances of Hindutva knowledge production and its tools for socio-cultural assimilation in the Northeast. Longkumer’s study seeks to contribute to broader research on Hindu nationalism and its growing influence in the Northeast.

Through members of Sangh Parivar (which includes members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Janajati Vikas Samiti (JVS), the Kalyan Ashram, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Vidya Bharati, Sewa Bharati, Vivekananda Kendra Vidhyalaya, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), and  Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)) as the interlocutors (whose ordinary lives, relationships, and stories the author unearths), Longkumer allows the reader to engage with the rough terrain of contestations and counter-contestations in a Hindu nationalist vision for the Northeast.

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RSS-Styled Shaka Activities in the Northeast | Photo: Hindustan Times

The Structure of the Argument

The book treats the Northeast as a laboratory for Hindutva’s arboreal vision, which superficially seeks to unify multiple diverse communities under one umbrella of Akhand Bharat (Greater India). In fact, this vision is deeply shaped by the ideas of V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, who treat India as an ancient holy land for the Hindus—pushing forth their idea of Great India in Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan.

Drawing on the writings of Chantal Mouffe, Tanika Sarkar, James C. Scott, Mikhail Bakhtin and other anthropologists, the author seeks to “operate on the microscale using Hindutva gaze as an analog” through “ethnographic and historically grounded narrative” (p. 46).

The book consists of seven chapters, each thematically dissecting an aspect of Hindutva and its ideological workings in the Northeast. These thematic discussions range from how Hindutva reconstructs history, the arboreality of Hindu nationalist vision, its interaction with Christianity, prophecies as an archival source, assimilation of the icon of Rani Gaidinliu, and electoral politics of the BJP, which has made way into most of the Northeastern states.

Arboreality of the Akhand Bharat

Discussing the arboreal nature of Hindutva, Longkumer unpacks how the Sangh epitomises indigenous and tribal relations through the roots of a tree (historically connected to an Akhand Bharat as a punyabhoomi (holy land)) which have common origins—despite heterogeneity in languages, customs, and habits (p. 5-9).

Moreover, the arboreal image of roots that share the same ground invariably pushes forth the notion that everyone inhabiting Hindustan is connected to a singular meta-history of Akhand Bharat.

akhand bharat - hindu nation north east
A Representative Map of a Greater India as Depicted in the New Parliament Building | Source: Twitter

Another running trope of Hindutva has been to, as one VHP schoolteacher put it, “uplift the tribals of the region, because the vanvasi (jungle dweller) are vulnerable, particularly against Christian conversions” (p. 17).

The book also documents an utmost commitment to the service—and winning over the hearts and minds—of the Northeast, which may entail the Sangh workers sacrifice vegetarianism and begin to eat meat and drink rice bear (p. 25).

Hindutva and the Re-narration of History of the Northeast

The book painstakingly documents how arboreality is practised in the Northeast through the recreation of history—regarding relations to roots. A critical element of such projects is mythically connecting the story of Rukmini (Lord Krishna’s wife) to the Idu Mishmi of Arunachal Pradesh (p. 61-67). In fact, there is an effort to recreate Sangh’s idea of the region as “one province revealed through relations and place names.

For instance, in Nagaland, Arjuna married Nagkanya Ulupi (Naga princess); Tripura (earlier Tipperah) has mixed worship of 14 Hindu gods; Arunachal Pradesh as Parashuramkunda, Rukmininagar, the whole Kundil valley civilisation, Mayapura, etc. (p. 69-70).

Longkumer argues the “process of place-making through the trope of nostalgia, however benevolent… are imbricated in power relations” (p. 83). Therefore, they usually tend to evoke imperialistic and paternalistic tendencies. Through the trope of mythicised nostalgia, the RSS reconstructs the Northeast of India to reflect the assimilation with the rest of India.

Hindutva Worlding and the Northeast

Hindutva worlding refers to how Hindutva seeks to appeal to and include the indigenous religion. Rather than claiming itself to be a religion, Hindutva argues that it is a way of being in the world.

The Sangh seeks to assimilate Hindutva with indigenous religions in three ways: first, they equate indigenous with Hindutva, of the soil, premised in the language of nationalism; second, they use indigenous to define non-Christian groups; and finally, they align indigenous with the self-identity (Hindu identity) borne out of marginalisation (p. 92-93).

Hindutva is the harmonious echo that produces and aspires to fulfil worlds in which differences are celebrated and where sameness is the grammar. The image of the soil and how ideologies crop up from it provides the lasting arborescent finality of Hindutva worldings.

(Longkumer 2022, 123)

Here, we should understand indigeneity is not a specific characteristic of some groups but an essential feature of the Hindutva nation.

Prophecy as an Archival Source

In the chapter “Prophecy and the Hindu State”, Longkumer discusses how prophecy plays a vital role for the Nagas dealing with the “Hindu State”. The chapter seeks to draw on the relationship between people, God, and government in understanding the life of politics.

Therefore, prophecy acts as both a “source of knowledge” and a “mode of deliberation with the Indian state” through prophetic messages (p. 160).

This chapter “presents prophecy—as a revealed knowledge—discloses a certain understanding of India, however crude it may be, as a Hindu state that has denied the Christian Nagas their birthright: that of sovereignty” (p. 127). Longkumer pushes an understanding of prophecy as archival material, which helps the Nagas interpret and negotiate the world.

In fact, the prophecy files accessed—and documented—by Longkumer highlight multiple ways in which the Naga National Council draws its legitimacy from Christ and the Bible. They begin from 1999 (Atal Bihari Vajpayee) up to 2016 (Narendra Modi).

modi in northeast
Prime Minister Narendra Modi Seen Wearing the Naga Traditional Headgear | Photo: The Naga Republic

Although these prophecy files are “uttered as speech from the person’s mouth”, the actual source of prophecy is attributed to God—in this case, Jesus Christ (p. 135). The demand for sovereignty is very much a running trope of these prophetic messages, which note: “I [read: God] am prepared to establish the Kingdom of Nagaland”, “I am aware that Nagas have committed ‘Nagaland for Christ’ to preach my gospel.

Accordingly, I have been dwelling in Nagaland since a long time”, etc. (p. 138). Ironically enough, the author notes, as a result of the 2016 Indo-Naga Accord, the BJP and the RSS appear sincere in “proactively solving the Naga issue”—even as they push their agenda against Christian missionaries.

Christianity and Hindutva in the Northeast

One of the earliest proponents of Hindutva, V.D. Savarkar, in his thesis Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, defines what makes for Hindutva—and who constitutes a Hindu. In the following essay, Savarkar explains three elements that make up a Hindu are matrubhu (motherland), pitrubhu (fatherland), and punyabhu (holy land).

While Christians and Muslims claim allegiance for the first two aspects, according to Savarkar, the final element of punyabhu fails on them.

Its application in the Northeast becomes difficult for the Hindutva project. There are two ways of assimilating with people in the Northeast. At first, the Hindutva forces seek to accommodate all non-Christian tribes/communities into the Hindu fold.

Then, they seek to conceptualise “Christian Hindu” as a syncretic composition of religious and cultural identities. As a result, Hinduism represented the “material and social aspects”, whereas Christianity provided the “cognitive and spiritual recourse” (p. 187-188).

This chapter argues that national unity, as the opposite of demands for separate national demands in the region, is constructed as natural, evoking the idea of sanathan dharma—and everyone sharing aspects of it. As a result, it has been able to accommodate and incorporate differences and push forward sameness in the imagination of the Hindu nation.

Multiplicities of Rani Gaidinliu

In recent years, The RSS has pushed forth the portrayal of Rani Gaidinliu as a “freedom fighter”, “devi”, and “tribal leader”. However, as Longkumer argues, her iconicity has failed to appeal to people in Nagaland since Sangh has transformed her figure into one of divinity.

Rani Gaidinliu, along with Jadonang, has been one of the important faces of Naga resistance to the British Raj. In fact, writing about young Gaidinliu’s valour in the face of British atrocities—who was in prison at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote:

India does not even know of this brave child of her hills, with the free spirit of the mountains in her… A day will come when India will also remember her, cherish her, and bring her out of her prison cell.

(Quoted in Longkumer 2022)

After independence, Gaidinliu presented a more accommodating vision of Nehru’s India than her contemporary and Naga National Council President A.Z. Phizo. While Phizo demanded separate nationhood for the Nagas, Gaidinliu sought its integration with the Hindus in India.

Therefore, she easily fits into RSS’s divinity of integration of Northeast into India. Gaidinliu attacked the Christian conversions, and, post-1966, she became an active ally of the Sangh. In fact, her RSS biographer, Jagadamba Mall, notes, “Ranima’s greatest achievement was establishing a close relationship with the ‘greater Hindu society’” (p. 200).

hindutva and north east - gaidinliu
Rani Gaidinliu on a 1996 stamp of India | Photo: Wikimedia

Due to her efforts in pushing the Nagas into the Hindu fold, the RSS made her a “person of devotion”—a spiritual entity. The RSS widely circulated the images of Rani Gaidinliu through newspapers, television, websites, and smartphones.

However, the Christian-dominated Nagas object to such representations of Gaidinliu as a national icon. Therefore, in the modern Sangh imagination, Gaidinliu has attained the imagination of devi, devoted to Bharat Mata—perfectly fits Sangh’s portrayal of a citizen’s devotion and loyalty to the nation.

The Centrality of Citizenship in the Politics of the Northeast

The rise of the BJP in the Northeast has been unprecedented. However, one must understand this in terms of how the BJP has been able to seek regional alliances actively; push forth a redefinition of indigeneity, territoriality, and ethnic and monetary politics; citizenship; and the growing anti-incumbency towards the Congress and the CPI-M in parts of the Northeast. It has also been able to bank on the migration of people from East Bengal (Now Bangladesh) in the Northeast.

With the new Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, there is also an active push for giving refuge to Hindus all over the region—further bolstering the RSS’s Akhand Bharat claims. The BJP has actively built alliances with indigenous people’s parties all over the region.

For instance, this is particularly true with North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a BJP-led coalition formed in 2016. As a result, it has also actively sought to integrate the indigenous people into the mainstream Hindu fold.

Conclusion

Devoid of all the anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence, as seen in parts of India, Northeast presents an interesting case of the Sangh pushing its narratives in the region. Therefore, this book is an interesting assessment of how the RSS and its affiliates have worked in the region and the narratives they push forth.

Arkotong Longkumer’s book on “Greater India” is a pioneering work on the rise of Hindutva across India. Moreover, this work seeks to uncover ordinary stories—and narratives—that the ordinary Sangh member carries as they navigate through the Christian-dominated Northeast. I am surprised by how less this book is known to a wider audience.

Therefore, it should be read widely—to understand what makes the Hindutva project ambitious and attractive.


Reference:

Arkotong Longkumer. The Greater India Experiment: Hindutva and the Northeast. 2022. New Delhi: Navayana Publications.


Suggested Readings:

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The Greater India Experiment: Hindutva and the Northeast by Arkotong Longkumer.

Buy the book in India or Globally.

Primary Texts on Hindu Nationalism:

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Bunch of Thoughts by M.S. Golwalkar.

Buy the book in India or Globally.

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Essentials of Hindutva by Vinayak D. Savarkar.

Buy the book in India or Globally.

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The RSS: A View to the Inside by Walter K. Anderson.

Buy the book in India or Globally.

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Hindu Nationalism: A Reader by Christophe Jaffrelot.

Buy the book in India or Globally.


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