Anger Rises in Assam Over State Government's Decision to Name New Colleges After Deendayal Upadhyay

While the state BJP president has justified the move as an attempt at integrating Assam into mainstream India, student bodies and several others see it as a way of suppressing sub-nationalism and spreading the Hindutva agenda.

New Delhi: Who is Deendayal Upadhyay?

The question may sound rather odd – if not audacious – in a large part of the country today, since the BJP-led central government in New Delhi is celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Upadhyay – the ideologue of the party’s fount, the Jan Sangh – with government funds like never before.

But this exactly is the question being asked over the last few days across BJP-ruled Assam with a sense of alarm and anger by a cross section of the public.

On social media, in newspaper articles, prime time discussions on local TV studios and in people’s drawing rooms across the state, many are also asking three supplementary questions:

What did Upadhyay do for Assam?

The BJP won in Assam promising to protect the indigenous people’s jati, mati and bheti (community, home and hearth). Did Upadhyay contribute anything towards that in the past?

Why didn’t a government that came to power promising protection of the interest of the indigenous people think of naming educational institutions after the people who contributed to it, and is instead going for an ‘outsider’?

The trigger behind these questions – being asked by a large spectrum of the civil society in the northeastern state since July 31 – is a recent announcement made by education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in Guwahati earlier that day.

Sarma said at a press meet that his government would set up a total of 22 ‘model’ colleges in the name of Upadhyay (to be named Pandit Upadhyay Adarsh Mahavidyalaya), five of which would start operating from September onwards. Some of these educational institutions, he said, would also be exclusively for girl students in minority inhabited areas.

The minister, widely seen as the second in command in the power structure of the state, also said, “All the colleges that the government will set up in the next four years would be named after Deendayal ji.”

On being asked what the idea was behind the move when people of the state had hardly heard about Upadhyay, Sarma reportedly said his ministry’s move would “start a new chapter in the education history of the state” and “help” Assamese students and, thereby people, study and learn about him.

He reportedly said that these institutes of higher education “must become the centre of social resurgence.”

BJP slammed for ‘betraying the people of Assam’

The minister’s comment on his government’s decision, followed by chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal distributing, along with him at an event on August 4, appointment letters to the teachers and principals selected for the first five colleges opening doors from September, have thereafter been widely seen with severe suspicion. Significantly, the move is being seen by the public as a ‘covert’ attempt to suppress the sense of sub-nationalism or jatiyotabadi in the people of the state by succumbing to Hindutva infused ‘outsider’ influence.

People from different walks of life are questioning the move on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. Powerful organisations like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) have condemned the Sonowal government for “behaving like the Congress” and for “selling themselves to the RSS agenda.” In the last few days, they have come out with sharp criticism of the government for “betraying the people of Assam” and for “showing disrespect to the local intellectuals and icons”.

“Assam never elected the BJP government to support Hindutva ideology; it chose the party because of two reasons. One, people were tired of the misrule in the last five years of the Congress government; and two, the BJP promised that it will protect the interest of the indigenous people. However, the BJP is now increasingly being seen as going back on its words,” AASU general secretary Dipanka Nath told The Wire.

Upset with the government’s move, Nath pointed out, “This politics of naming places and institutions after political leaders and ideologues is seen as a typical Congress action. They have long been using the Gandhi family to name institutions and places across the Northeast, which has hurt people’s jatiyotabadi sentiments. People of Assam were outraged when the Tarun Gogoi government named the Jalukbari crossing in Guwahati as Rajiv Chowk and then we saw the Orang national park being named Rajiv Gandhi national park.”

“There are so many such examples. Prior to the assembly elections in 2016, the BJP vehemently opposed the trend and won people’s appreciation for it. However, now we see that the BJP is also naming institutions and roads, etc. after the prominent members of the Sangh parivar, their political family. Recently, we saw the Kahilipara road in Guwahati named after Upadhyay about whom people here have not heard. And now the colleges.”

The popular student leader, however, underlined, “Assamese people wouldn’t have bothered much if one college would have been named after Upadhyay. Even if he had not done anything for Assam, at least people would have seen the point that he was a revered figure of the RSS-BJP ruling the state. But they are angry now because of the government’s arrogance that all colleges hereafter would be named after him. So people are bound to ask, why only him? What has he done for Assam and its people that we have to name all the colleges after him? What is the government’s interest in it? Is there any hidden agenda? Why not in the name of our own leaders and intellectuals? Mind you, there is no college named after the father of Assamese literature, Lakshminath Bezbaruah.”

Deendayal Upadhyaya. Credit: bjp.org

He felt, “Actually, the government has opened a path to disrespect Upadhyay. Tomorrow, if someone puts tar on the signboard that says Upadhyay College, what will it signify? I urge the government to take back its decision; else we will be bound to think of further steps to oppose it.”

Recently, the Narendra Modi government named the Dhola-Sadiya bridge – India’s longest, constructed over river Brahmaputra in Assam – after the celebrated musician from the state Bhupen Hazarika.

Educationist and former principal of the well-known B. Borooah College in Guwahati, Dinesh Baishya, said, “It was a good move. However, on hindsight, I feel naming the bridge after Upadhyay would have been better than naming all the colleges after him because of the reason the education minister gave for naming these colleges.”

Baishya asked, “My question to the minister who said Assamese people would thereby learn more about Upadhyay now, is: he went to Cotton College in Guwahati; did he study there who Mr Cotton was or studied the subjects he chose for his degree? Students may join any college named after any person but they never join a college to study and know the person it is named after. So now that the government wants students to know about Upadhyay through these colleges, the question arises, is it an attempt to teach Assamese youth what Upadhyay stood for as an ideologue of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh?”

Reiterating what Nath said, that “the people of the state would not have minded had it been just one college named after Upadhyay,” Baishya wondered if by naming all the colleges after him, the government is trying to impose “a Macaulay-style of education” on the people.

“If this is the case it will be dangerous. People of Assam have a strong sense of sub-nationalism. They are both Assamese and Indian. They are asking why the government didn’t think of naming the colleges after local icons, local personalities. The government, being public representative, will have to respect the wishes of the people, which, as we all have noticed, have come out so vocally against the move,” he pointed out.

Both Nath and Baishya felt, “If the government doesn’t listen to the people’s wishes, it will boomerang on it.”

Attempts to alter course of Assamese society?

Well-known Guwahati-based writer-social observer Mayur Bora, like Baishya, Nath and many others in the state openly airing their opinion on the issue since July 31, sees the government’s move as a continuation of “a pattern” possibly aimed at “changing” the course of Assamese society.

“This is the land of Sankardeva, who spread an egalitarian form of Vaishnavism during the Bhakti period, replacing the Brahminical hierarchy of caste, untouchability, etc. and formed a cohesive society by including the tribals in it. However, there was a disruption to it during the rule of Ahom king Rudra Singha (1696-1714) where Brahminical influence was brought in from neighbouring Bengal through Parbatiya Gosain, who was given space on the Nilachal Hills near Guwahati. Otherwise considered a great king, his rule also saw how the lower caste satradhikar of the vaishnava monasteries were barred from initiating Brahmins (into Vaishnasim) and the Brahmins from visiting Sudra monasteries, unlike what was propogated by Sankardeva. Now, after the government organised the festival like the Namami Brahmaputra by bringing priests from Haridwar to worship the river, which we usually don’t, we need to see this latest move of the government naming colleges after a Hindu ideologue from a wider perspective. I wonder if is also an attempt to bring in another Brahminical disruption in the socio-religious life of the people of Assam,” Bora told this correspondent.

That the state government could think of starting the colleges within a month’s time is because the construction of the buildings to house the first five colleges began in 2007 itself, under the then Gogoi government.

The construction of these buildings was as per the direction of an advisory committee set up under the University Grants Commission (UGC) by the former Manmohan Singh government based on a survey conducted by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2001. Accoding to that survey, as many as 374 districts across the country were found to be lagging behind in terms of avenues for college education. Twelve districts of Assam found place among those districts. As per a DPR (detailed project report) made by the UGC’s advisory committee then, it was agreed that colleges would be opened by the government under two conditions: one, there should not be a college within 10 kms of the area chosen for a new college. Two, the centre and the state would give Rs 4 crore each to fund such a college.

Work began on construction of such colleges in Assam. Though these colleges were to start functioning from 2016 onwards, they couldn’t because the construction was complete only in a few districts as the central contribution for these colleges dried up after the Modi government came to power in 2014.

However, with the Centre now celebrating 100 years of Upadhyay’s birth anniversary, the Assam government took the opportunity to name all such colleges after him. “Naturally then, the central funds,” according to sources in the state education ministry, “have been reopened and the pending construction work of the remaining colleges would be completed in a year’s time.”

Though the state government has decided to name all such colleges after Upadhyay, it is not yet known whether such colleges coming up in the rest of the 352 districts of the country would also be named after the BJP-RSS ideologue.

Reacting to the news, Assamese writer Nagen Saikia, a Sahitya Akademi award winner and former Rajya Sabha member, pointed out, “There is no college named after Upadhyay even in his home town Mathura.” He added, “This government should remember one line that Gandhi said about what India is. He said, ‘India is one in many and many in one.’ The Assamese people are both Assamese and Indian. They are also Assamese first and then Indian. It is true of most regions of the country. You can’t think of establishing so many colleges after any Assamese icon, say in Gujarat or Maharastra for the same reason. If the BJP doesn’t remember this, then I am afraid that this country may run the risk of getting disintegrated, which can be dangerous.”

Hindutva agenda

Opposing the government’s move at a press meet in Guwahati on August 7, KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi accused the state government of “imposing Hindutva agenda” on the people of the state. Local news reports quoted him as saying, “We appreciate that the government is opening new colleges but we do not accept colleges being set up in the name of a particular Hindutva leader. The people of Assam can never accept it. This is happening only because the RSS wants to impose their views and Hindutva ideology on the people of Assam. They want to oppress the people of Assam as they have always opposed the rules that Delhi wanted to impose on the state from time to time.”

A firebrand, Gogoi challenged the chief minister to “have an open debate” with him on what Upadhyay stood for or on his “contribution” to India’s freedom struggle.

Though the government’s move is widely being seen as an attempt to “appease the RSS”, some state-based leaders associated with the right-wing Hindu outfit’s education wing, Vidya Bharati, pointed out that the schools runs by them in the state are named after the local guru Sankardeva, not Upadhyay.

Dhirendra Nath Chakrabarty, an Assamese intellectual seen close to the RSS, claimed to reporters that the government’s move “is more of an attempt by a set of neo converts in the state BJP to show how right wing they are.”

However, at a press meet on August 10, the BJP state president Ranjit Das tried to justify the government’s decision by cloaking it in a new definition of his party’s election promise of “jati mati bheti”. He said the promise needed to be seen not from a “narrow perspective” but from the point of protection of the interests of the entire country and not just Assam. He also said that it was one way of “integrating Assam to mainstream India”.

While Das’s attempt at the new definition of “jati mati bheti” triggered a round of street protests by student bodies, including the burning of his effigy, Kanaksen Deka, a widely acclaimed Assamese writer-journalist, otherwise supportive of the party, reacted to the remark while speaking to the press in Guwahati, saying, “The BJP doesn’t need to integrate Assam with mainstream India. It has been done 2000 years ago. Even Sankardeva talked about our association with Bharat Varsha. But if the young leader still wants to do something for Assam, he can certainly do a more worthwhile thing which the people of the state and the region have been wanting for decades.”

“We have been seeking inclusion of Northeast in the national anthem for generations now. If he can ask his central government to help replace ‘Sindh’, which is not in India anymore, with the word ‘Assam’ or even ‘Tripura’ or any other northeastern state, then I would say, his party has done something substantial to integrate the region to mainstream India.”

Meanwhile, the two state allies of the BJP, formed on the foundation of jatiyotabad or regionalism – the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front – have held back commenting on the government’s latest move to “integrate Assam to mainstream India”.