Assam’s Growing Resistance to Saffronisation

The government’s decision to open 22 colleges named after Deendayal Upadhyaya reinforces the RSS’s much-hyped role in last year’s state elections and has triggered a backlash.


Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal distributing appointment letters to teachers for the colleges named after Deendayal Upadhyaya in Guwahati. State education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma seen on the right (right), Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. Credit: Twitter

Within just 15 months of its decisive victory in the elections, the BJP-led government  in Assam finds itself on a sticky wicket. Having come to power on the slogan “Jati, Mati Aru Bheti (Nationality, Land and Hearth/Identity)” and having roused the emotions of the Assamese masses by declaring the elections as the last battle of Sariaghat – the final decisive victory of the Ahoms over the Mughals in the river battle near Guwahati in 1671 – the party leadership which is being forced to toe the line dictated by Nagpur, is clearly facing the people’s ire.

The recent decision of the  government to start as many as 22 government colleges named after Deendayal Upadhyaya has evoked widespread resentment and  resistance throughout the state. Even the two major constituents of the BJP-led coalition, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) have expressed their opposition to the move. The regional press has been flooded with articles condemning the government decision as an attempt at saffronisation of Assam’s secular polity and TV shows are holding regular discussions on the issue.

Certain leading intellectuals of the state who had earlier  been soft towards the BJP and had seen it as a positive alternative to the fifteen years of corrupt Congress rule, have now declared their opposition to the saffronisation moves and have accused the party of betraying its promise to defend the land and identity of the Assamese people.

The two most powerful student-youth organisations of the state, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva-Chatra Parishad (AJYCP)  have threatened to launch an agitation if the government move is not rescinded, while the  influential Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) headed by its  firebrand leader Akhil Gogoi has already taken to the streets to protest the government’s move. In several parts of the state, effigies of the education minister have been burnt and Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal strongly condemned. The BJP leadership seems quite taken aback by this backlash, especially at a time when the Sonowal government had earned quite some public support for its anti-corruption measures.

It is significant that in the midst of this rising public anger, the RSS and the  Sangh Parivar are maintaining a low profile. Unlike in other north Indian BJP-ruled  states where the  RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dan cadres swiftly react to scuttle any move to mobilise the people against the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, in Assam the situation seems quite different. Despite tall claims that the RSS has made rapid advances in the state, the regional sentiment is still very strong and the secular fabric of Assamese society founded on the principles laid down by the 15th century Vaishnava reformer saint Srimanta Sankardeva (1449-1568) and the Sufi saint Ajan Fakir, is still very much intact. Even the Vaishnava satras or monasteries, many of which are with the VHP, would think twice before jumping into the bandwagon of militant Hindutva because their  very ethos is built on the acceptance of a secular and multi-cultural society. In recent years and especially after the BJP’s  electoral victory, the RSS may have substantially expanded its base. But given the history and culture of the people of the region, it will be extremely difficult for it to wean the Assamese people away from their secular beliefs and religious tolerance by trying to impose simple equations of Hindu versus Muslim or nation versus regional identity.

Deen Dayal Upadhyaya

Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. Credit: BJP website

It needs to be remembered that the history of this region , apart from its strong secular credentials, is laced with innumerable instances of doubt, suspicion and distrust of the Indian nation- state represented by its leadership at the centre. The present public indignation against the BJP government and the silence of the RSS-VHP combine once again tends to  reinforce the argument that the RSS’s role in last year’s Assam elections has been much hyped. It also reinforces the argument that the overwhelming majority of the people of the state did not vote for any saffron agenda but had put their trust in the BJP-AGP-BPF combine, supported by several plains tribal bodies, because they believed that under the new dispensation, their land and identity would be safeguarded. The RSS joined this chorus in the hope that once the BJP came to power, it would go about setting its own agenda. But in this it is  facing resistance from a wide spectrum of Assamese society.

The recent public outrage over the naming of colleges after Deendayal Upadhyaya has been preceded by a chain of events which started in December last year. On the December 24, 2016, the RSS organised a camp for teenage trainees on  the premises of the historic Kareng Ghar or royal palace of the Ahom kings situated some 15 km from the upper Assam town of Sibsagar. This heritage building which was built in 1540 and given its present shape  in 1742 by Ahom King Pramatta Singha has long symbolised the collective and multi-dimensional identity of the Assamese people. On the conclusion of the camp, RSS workers mounted the roof the Kareng Ghar and raised pro-Hindutva slogans. This act so angered the local population and organisations like the Assam Tai Ahom Students Union (ATASU), that protests were held at several places. Finally, the structure was “purified” with milk as a symbolic gesture against attempts to communalise the social fabric of Assam.

The Kareng Ghar incident was followed by another incident at the Mariani College, a premier educational institution of upper Assam. Here the principal (obviously under government pressure) gave permission for a RSS camp to be held during the college vacation. This was strongly opposed by sections of the local people who were provided leadership by the Congress MLA of the area and the NSUI. The attempt to hold the camp was finally foiled. The RSS agenda of trying to infiltrate into the educational institutions became a major issue of debate throughout the state and several leading dailies came out with editorials condemning the move. That the Mariani College incident could assume such proportions  and bring together people of different ideologies on a common platform  bears evidence of the fact that the saffronisation agenda of the RSS is bound to meet with strong resistance in the state.

Two other instances of growing resistance to the Hindutva agenda may be referred to. One was the much hyped Namami Brahmaputra festival held by the state government  in April this year and which  was  part of the broader agenda of bringing Assam within the Hindutva embrace. Over a dozen Brahmin priests were flown in from northern India for the river arati on the banks of the Brahmaputra in line with the Ganga arti. But such an attempt to appropriate the Brahmaputra and its civilisation ended in a fiasco, with crores of taxpayers’ money being spent.

The Brahmaputra has stood for ages as the symbol of cultural inclusiveness, plurality and diversity and it has been worshipped in various forms and in different names by the indigenous population of  the region. It was the height of audacity to try to bring this mighty river and all that its stands for within the narrow channel of a particular brand of Hinduism. The adverse criticism that the Namami Brahmaputra  festival elicited among all segments of the people as was reflected in both the print and electronic media has  proved that the Hindutva juggernaut would meet with serious obstacle in the state. The reaction began with the choice of the term “Namami Brahmaputra” which, it was pointed out, was a pale imitation of “Namami Ganga” and failed to connect with the people of the region. The sudden urge to “Indianise” and even ”Hinduise”  the Brahmaputra by bringing in  priests from the Gangetic heartland was  seen by many as part of a wider, insidious agenda of swallowing up the distinct local traditions and practices and replacing them with a particular brand of North Indian Hinduism.

Even before the controversy over the state-sponsored Namami Brahmaputra festival had subsided, yet another issue  surfaced, which brought to light the resistance to attempts at  appropriation of local traditional practices into the greater monolithic Hindutuva fold and to wipe away the differences between different varieties of Hinduism as practiced in the country. Every year thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the country converge on the Kamakhya temple in the Nilachal Hill at Guwahati  for the Ambubachi Mela. The mela is a part of an ancient festival to celebrate the fertility of the earth. For generations, the Kamakhya temple has drawn sadhus, mendicants, and pilgrims during the Ambubachi period which usually coincides with the coming of the monsoon to the region. Although attempts by certain quarters to give a pan-Indian colour to Kamakya has been on for some time, yet it has succeeded in retaining what may be termed as its distinct local colour guarded assiduously by  the management of the temple trust which is called  the Bardeuri Samaj.

This year, the Bardeuri Samaj  resisted attempts to term the Ambubachi mela as a “mini Kumbh Mela” and decided not to allow the  procession by the Naga sadhus within the temple premises. In a statement the Ambubachi Mela Parichalana Samity, run mainly by the priests of the temple,  stated, “Ambubachi festival is a very local concept and it is not a mini Kumbha Mela as portrayed by many. Earlier also the Naga sadhus arrived at the venue but their number was quite small. For the past three years they have been coming in very large numbers in an organised format. We have received feedback from the common people visiting the Kamakhya Devalaya regarding their discomfort in the presence of the Naga sadhus….”  This is just an indication of the difficulties that  organisations like the RSS are bound to face if they try to steamroll  diversity and identity issues into one single mould.

There is no doubt that over the years the RSS-VHP combine has been trying to rapidly expand its base in Assam. The BJP victory has certainly given it added confidence and government patronage. But it is to be seen whether in the context of the strong  multi-cultural , multi-religious and secular tradition of the state, the RSS will be able to impose its uni-cultural model in the region. Trying to rush through its agenda may prove to be its undoing. The signs of disillusionment with the saffronisation programme are already quite clear and, as was expected, BJP’s own coalition partners like the AGP and the BPF have expressed reservations about the RSS role in government functioning. With influential bodies like the AASU, the AJYCP, the KMSS and the ATASU, ranged against it (not to speak of the Congress, the Left and the All India United Democratic Front) the RSS’s saffronisation agenda is bound to meet with strong resistance. In a recent development, the AGP has come out in unequivocal terms against the naming of  colleges after Deendayal Upadhyaya and has urged the Sonowal government to respect the sentiments of the Assamese people and  reconsider its decision.

The first cracks in the coalition seem to be appearing. Although the AGP’s eventual withdrawal from the coalition may not directly  affect the BJP government, yet it will certainly  lead to new political equations in the State. Moreover, the protests in Assam are bound to affect the politics of the neighbouring states such as Meghalaya and Nagaland where doubts about the RSS’s saffronisation programme are becoming stronger with every passing day.

Udayon Misra has been a Professor of English and a National Fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. He is author of The Periphery Strikes Back (IIAS, Shimla) and India’s North-East: Identity Movements, State and Civil Society (OUP). His latest book The Burden of History: Assam and the Partition (OUP) is slated for release in September, 2017.

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