It was in the winter of 2016, I had gone back to my home in Southern Odisha after almost a year. I had come home with two of my friends from Northeast India and thought of showing them few nearby places. They wanted to know more about the local tribal culture, so we decided to visit the neighboring district called Malkangiri situated at the border of Chhatishgarh and Andhra Pradesh. There is one popular local market there where the Bondas come down once in a week to sell their famous rice beer and bamboo baskets. The Bondas fall under the particularly vulnerable tribal group of Odisha. Less than 5000 in numbers, they live in a hill with very less or no contact with the plains people including Govt officials driven with an idea of protectionism. This has been the case for last many decades and I have been passing through that village since my childhood but this time in 2016, I suddenly noticed few changes and it had to do with the Bonda women. Bonda women usually cover upper part of their body with long necklaces made out of colorful stones and beads but this time they were wearing ‘nighties’ and some of them had sindoor/vermilion on their foreheads. After further inquiry in the nearby shops, I came to realize that sartorial change had been the work of RSS in last few years. Moreover, some of them had turned vegetarian.
Engagement of RSS with the Bonda community had been there silently for many years but these changes were noticed long after. By now they had co-opted the Bonda history into the larger Hindu narrative with a fabricated legend by invoking Ramayana, where by the swayamsevaks had started propagating that the reason for all Bonda women to have shaved heads is due to a curse given by Sita while she was in exile. Apparently, Sita was taking bath in a stream in a nearby forest when some of the passer by Bonda women saw her and started laughing and this made Sita angry and in turn she cursed them to have their head shaved thereafter.
What baffled my mind that day was witnessing this silent working of RSS bearing fruit after years of engagement and thus changing and erasing the local history of an entire tribal community to enforce Hindu consciousness which in it’s essence does not exist amongst the tribals. A B. R. Ambedkar said:
The story about the Bonda community is not an isolated one, far off in the frontiers of Arunachal Pradesh, RSS has been in an long campaign to fabricate Mongoloid Shiva out of the local indigenous deity Rangfraa in an attempt to subsume the Changsa community into Hindu fold and not to forget the making of Hanuman into a tribal in Karnataka, co-opting of Rani Gaidinliu, an anti-colonial Zeliangarong Naga reformer and warrior, as a proto-hindutva icon.
According to Northeast Today article called ‘Rise of RSS in Northeast’, there are three Sakhas (branches) in Dimapur in Nagaland with one Milan (weekly programme) and two Mondolis (monthly programme). Nagaland is covered by Uttar Assam unit of the RSS. Janjati Vikas Samiti (Tribal Welfare Forum), a voluntary organization based in Nagaland has been active in the state for the last 40 years or so. It is also said to have opened dispensaries in Kohima and Phek districts. It has also jointly organized various social programs with Zeliangrong Heraka groups.
Coming to Dalits, the association of Raja Harishchandra and Kalu Dom has been used to keep the Doms into their prescribed caste occupation of burning dead bodies on the ghats of Vanaras and the Valmiki history being distorted to make them a part of Ramayana are few of the many such narratives RSS has been relentlessly working on for years. This is what the founder of RSS K.B Hedgewar had to say:
Opposition to Mandal commission, Babri Masjid demolition, Anti-conversion laws, Anti- Muslim violence, Caste massacres, invoking of cow to mob lynch, Shri Rama Janmabhoomi, “Minority appeasement”, “National security”, Partition, Jammu and Kashmir these are the knots tied to each other in the thread of RSS to create Hindu Rashtra to maintain the Brahmin-Savarna supremacy.
In this trajectory, for decades RSS led by Brahmin Men has been silently engaging with the local histories to co-opt, distort and subsume the marginalized sections under a larger Hindu narrative. Local Anti- Caste struggles of reinterpreting histories, denouncing Hindu practices from Sahodaran Ayyapan , Periyar to Ravidas and Ambedkar, linguistic nationalism struggle like that of Tamil Nadu, oppressed nationality struggles, indigenous struggles of reclaiming cultural identities and territories, conversion movements to Buddhism, Islam, Christianity from Maharashtra, Meenakshipuram to North east regions of Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya all of them have definitely acted as some deterrents to the RSS imagination of Hindu nationalism over the decades but the challenge is far bigger.
Over the last few years there has been a lot of debates around the policy failures of BJP starting from demonetization, farmer suicides, non-creation of job opportunities. This might surely erupt public anger against government from time to time and may also create upsets for BJP in electoral arithmetic but these vantage points are inadequate in creating a counter cultural consciousness against the ongoing project of Hindu Cultural nationalism by RSS in the long term. Nevertheless, during the same time, there were huge protests against BJP-RSS starting from Justice for Rohith Vemula movement, Una uprising, Anti dilution of SC/ST POA, Bhima Koregaon, Pathalgadi movement, Lingayat demand for separate religion, Niyamgiri and these events from Anti-Caste & Adivasi movements kept bringing out the question of Caste and tribal territorial autonomy en masse which unsettles the RSS narrative of singular Hindu identity. Movements and narratives like these needs to be sustained long term in a decentralized manner.
Robust cultural movements at grass root levels by reinterpreting local histories from the villages of Odisha to the hills of Uttrakhand, refuting the RSS narrative of a thousand year of Hinduism in existence, building solidarities with other marginalized communities, Caste census, tribal autonomy, struggles of oppressed nationalities, debates around federalizing regional governance are very important. Furthermore, securing SC status for Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims, debates of conversions, proportional representation and so on can help build a strong counter force rather than a Pan-India centralized superficial narrative of “Hindutva Fascism” from the top.
Usually, post hindutva/sangh violence reactions articulation misses out on the local debates which RSS focuses very much in building it’s Pan India Hindu nationalist narrative. It very cleverly co-opts and creates a façade of including the Dalits and Adivasis/Tribals to the Hindu fold on it’s own terms yet excludes them with the graded hierarchy while at the same time making Muslim as the Criminal other. It works silently in remote places, builds Hindu nationalist consciousness gradually and with the legitimacy earned it gets the impunity to implement policies and verdicts so that it faces no public opposition to its various actions like the recent Babri Masjid verdict and revoking of Article 370. The sweeping majority of BJP in 2019 general elections made a mockery out of the predictions of leading academicians, civil societies and political scientists because much of the predictions were based on debates of policy failures and momentary protests against them were mistaken to be an overwhelming opposition against BJP-RSS. During the general elections of 2019, it was well established that a section of traditional voters of CPI(M) shifted to BJP in West Bengal. This should be a timely eye opener towards the project of Pan- India Hindu cultural consciousness by RSS and how overpowering this nemesis can be in the coming time in furthering the vulgar violence on Muslims and Christians openly. Fighting to protect ideas of secularism & clarion call for harmony post violence like Not in my name, Saving the Constitution, protests against policy failures are like temporary band aids and not long term solution in preventing this formation of what Dr B.R Ambedkar refers to as the communal majority. Lastly, the Nehru and Tharoor version of all encompassing existence of Hinduism for thousands of years as opposed to “Hindutva Fascism” of RSS is not just ahistorical but antithetical to the alternative history of Dalit Bahujan struggles against Brahmanical hegemony and Caste.