RSS in Meghalaya? Get Real, don’t get Scared!
The excitement in Shillong over the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who took out a march last year in 2016 in the city reminded me of an event in Nagpur a couple of years ago. In January 2013, news came from Nagpur that a group of Kashmiri students had been attacked and beaten up, and were leaving the city fearing further violence. There were no details, but Twitter erupted with people jumping to the obvious conclusion: the Hindutva stormtroopers of RSS must be driving the Kashmiris out. Nagpur is, after all, famous as the place where the RSS has its headquarters.
It turned out that the real story was more complicated and less political. Some years ago, a handsome Kashmiri boy allegedly had an affair with the wife of a local gangster. The gangster, Gaffar Ali, had subsequently developed an animosity and suspicion towards Kashmiri students. When another sign of romance came to his notice, he had taken his men and gone on the attack in the neighbourhood of Hasanbagh, a largely Muslim neighbourhood in Nagpur, which, despite the RSS, has a diverse population.
Nagpur has always been a political stronghold of the Congress, though the RSS headquarters have been there since the organisation's foundation in 1925. The Nagpur Lok Sabha constituency has returned a BJP MP only twice in its history to date. The second time was 2014.
Within Maharashtra itself, the influence of the Sangh is limited. The state's capital, Mumbai, has swung between the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party alliance on the one hand and the BJP and Shiv Sena on the other, with the Sena being the bigger presence in the city so far. There is currently a tussle between the BJP and the Sena over who's the boss, and that tussle will come to a head during the Mumbai municipal polls next year.
The Sena has always stood for the local "Marathi manoos"; it is quite different from the more Brahminical RSS, and is not part of the Sangh Parivar. People outside Maharashtra tend to overestimate the dangers posed by the RSS. They may be a large national organization, but they are not omnipotent. Moreover, they are largely peaceful, and mind their own business. As long as they are not forcing anyone to attend their shakhas or live by their rules, they should be treated like any other legal organisation. If any RSS member breaks the law, he or she should be dealt with as required by law.
A group of a few hundred men in shorts carrying sticks should really not intimidate anyone in the Northeast, where bigger groups of men from various outfits wearing combat fatigues and carrying automatic weapons have been a part of everyone's lives for decades.
The RSS ideology, too, is less frightening than it is often made out to be. For instance, its current chief, Mohan Bhagwat, has repeatedly stressed the idea of unity in diversity. The RSS has clarified that it does not stand against any religious group.
In Shillong, Meghalaya it has found common cause with adherents of the old indigenous Khasi and Jaintia religions. Those old faiths are deeply intertwined with local cultures; in this they are similar to ancient traditional faiths everywhere. To the extent that the vanishing local indigenous culture is helped by the conservatism of the RSS, it may not entirely be a bad thing.
The trouble begins because the RSS tends to swallow the indigenous into a more homogenised Hindu faith. This is an identity crisis that followers of Donyi Polo in Arunachal Pradesh are facing.
The indigenous has been under assault around the world for centuries. The most terrible erasures of indigenous peoples and cultures have happened in North America and Australia, where the Red Indians and the aboriginals were practically wiped out under assault from market forces in their earlier avatar as colonial enterprises.
In India, mercifully, the indigenous has largely survived. Tribal peoples have got their own states or autonomous councils where they can live largely as they wish.
Unfortunately, it seems they largely wish only to make lots of money and buy everything advertised on TV. The youngsters often seem ashamed of their own ancestors and ancestral cultures. They celebrate American singers and bands, and even Korean pop, but can't sing their own songs. They view their own people through Westernised eyes.
There is some realization that this is absurd, and a growing hunger for a celebration of one's own roots. The success of the Tetseo Sisters of Nagaland speaks of this, and of the curiosity around the globe for what is authentic and rooted – originals, not duplicates.
Musical tastes are less primordial than tastes in food. The fact that Naga restaurants are successful and popular in Delhi indicates that even there, the indigenous is welcome and valued.
Food is the arena where the conservatism of the RSS brings it into conflict with the indigenous, and perhaps even with itself. In Maharashtra, the state extended an existing ban on cow slaughter to include bulls and bullocks. Buffalo meat is still available, but the ban on other forms of beef has been pushed through citing majority sentiment.
Not long after the beef ban, a local municipal corporation ordered a temporary halt to slaughter of all animals to coincide with a Jain festival called "Paryushan". All hell broke loose, as the Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena led by Raj Thackeray rose in angry protest. Most Maharashtrian communities eat chicken, mutton and fish. Jains and most Gujarati communities typically do not. The imposition of what was seen as a Gujarati piety on a Maharashtrian population was something the locals wouldn't tolerate.
In Northeast India, of course, most communities eat beef, pork, and other meats. Verrier Elwin, the brilliant anthropologist who lived in Shillong, got it exactly right when he wrote long ago that between Hinduism and the tribes of the region stands the gentle figure of the cow.
The best reason to not worry too much about the growth prospects of the RSS in the Northeast is that people like their own food habits, and that is unlikely to change. The RSS will have to work out its position on the holy cow before it can properly establish itself in tribal Northeast India. Until then, it will be quite easy for opponents to rain on their parades.
The writer is a newspaper editor and author from Shillong. He currently lives in Mumbai
The views reflected in this piece are that of the author and need not necessarily be that of TNT-The Northeast Today