The demography of Assam is changing. You have Christian missionaries active all over Assam (in Majuli for example) and in Arunachal Pradesh, and Bangladeshi Muslim illegal immigrants are threatening those who are indigenous to the Northeast. We have to stop this menace!
JAGDISH’S VOICE WAS RISING as we discussed his work for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) a right-wing Hindu volunteer organization, in a café in Guwahati, the capital of Assam. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see two young Assamese men getting agitated. Suddenly, they moved toward Jagdish, hurling abuse and threatening to beat him up. Angry and inebriated, the two men turned to me and said: “What is an educated man like you doing with this sister fucker [behn chod]?” “Come out,” they shouted at Jagdish, “or we will drag you out.” One of them continued addressing Jagdish. “It is because of people like you, who have stirred up communal hatred, that the peaceful atmosphere here has been disturbed. We should call the police and have you arrested for inciting violence.” Jagdish protested and claimed his innocence: “What’s wrong with having a conversation about current issues?” I joined in too and argued for peace and calm, not wanting to see violence erupt. I felt a responsibility toward Jagdish, to keep him safe. Luckily, a friend was in the café a few tables away and recognized me amid this commotion. He came over and calmed the situation down.
Jagdish was visibly shaken but insisted on resuming our conversation. The tense atmosphere continued unabated through prying eyes and hushed voices from the tables around us, making me feel uneasy. It was now out in the open that he was an RSS man and unwelcome, and me a willing interlocutor in entertaining his views without objecting. I could sense that the work of the RSS was emotional terrain in many parts of Guwahati, and Jagdish’s combative manner of talking only heightened the uneasiness.
Jagdish, for his part, reassured me that he was fine and that these kinds of occurrences were not unusual for him. He told me he had experienced many slaps and “boxings,” a colloquial way of expressing physical assault, and that to work as an RSS man in a largely Christian Indian state such as Nagaland (where he was usually based) was like being a cow tied to a butcher’s post. He provided evidence by mentioning that some RSS workers had been kidnapped and killed, particularly in Tripura, in “cold blood” by militants associated with the “Baptist church,” while the Communist state government remained silent. Although I was unsure of Jagdish’s exact story at that time, I learned later of the killing of four RSS workers in Tripura in 1999, with the National Liberation Front of Tripura as the prime suspect.1
I start with this episode to provide a backdrop to the kind of interactions and activities I have been engaged in for the past five years, during which I conducted the research for this book. While the RSS and the larger Sangh Parivar (a family of organizations comprising the Hindu right; henceforth Sangh) are viewed as objectionable by many, this makes it all the more important that their lived realities are dispassionately understood. Rather than simply dismissing them or arguing against them, I take both what they have to say and their modes of operation seriously. Based on long-term ethnographic and archival research, I examine the nuances of Hindutva knowledge production across the region, the relational work, the adjustments, the compromises, in some cases the remarkable creativity and generation of new possibilities: Hindutva becoming. Some of the data may surprise, disrupting what we think we know about Hindutva. Sangh activists are often known for their violence, but in this region, they become the target of violence and virulent rhetoric. Rather than focusing simply on their programmatic ideological stance, we must unearth the lives of individuals, their relationships, and their stories.
A parallel can be found in Hilary Pilkington’s (2016) sensitive study of the English Defence League, where she argues that there is much hesitancy in dealing seriously with right-wing populist movements, establishing an academic cordon sanitaire. She instead argues that recoiling in our academic shells and refusing to acknowledge the political realities “out there” in the world, however uncomfortable, have political implications too. Such a view comes with real political costs, Pilkington reminds us. By ridiculing, ignoring, and undermining these formative political voices, we are in effect exercising our own (biased) political motivations, ignoring the fact that the commitment to reclaiming politics spans different social, economic, and religious spectrums; challenges ethnic and racial prejudices; and illuminates majoritarian and marginalized positions. Warning us not to shun those who have different, and at times challenging, perspectives, Susan Harding (1991, 374) argues that to call someone a “repugnant cultural other” is to assume a “homogenous” subject that can be explained in opposition to those who are “modern.” However, she suggests that both “fundamentalist” and the “modern” subjects are produced by “modern discursive practices” that have certain “categories, assumptions, and trajectories implicit in [their] narrative representations” (375). Like Harding, who struggles with how to represent Christian fundamentalists in the American imaginary, I try here to comprehend the different facets of the Sangh, even as I grapple with my own inclination not to ally with them, while to a certain degree collaborating with them “in disrupting modern representations of them” (375).
One way to negotiate the impasse of problematic categories—fundamentalist/populist/militant/modern/liberal—is to examine how the political is entangled in human relations. The political theorist Chantal Mouffe (1993) argues for an approach that focuses on the relational aspect of identity. She points out that human society is made up of relations—how “we” see ourselves in relation to “them.” In this sense, both we and they are limited by establishing the boundaries of these identities. Placing restrictions of this sort, Mouffe suggests, often leads to difference. The challenge arises when the Other starts infringing on “our” identity and negates it (and vice versa). Mouffe argues:
From that moment onwards any type of we/them relation, be it religious, ethnic, national, economic or other, becomes the site of a political antagonism. . . . As a consequence, the political cannot be restricted to a certain type of institution, or envisaged as constituting a specific sphere or level of society. It must be conceived as a dimension that is inherent to every human society and that determines our very ontological condition. Such a view of the political is profoundly at odds with liberal thought, which is precisely the reason for the bewilderment of this thought when confronted with the phenomenon of hostility in its multiple forms. This is particularly evident in its incomprehension of political movements, which are seen as the expression of the so-called “masses”. Since they cannot be apprehended in individualistic terms, these movements are usually relegated to the pathological or deemed to be the expression of irrational forces. (1993, 2–3)
If we are to take Pilkington, Harding, and Mouffe’s guidance seriously in how we understand the commitment to the political in whatever form, we must not only recognize differences in opinion but be open to engage critically with those that threaten to negate identities for some perceived greater good. One could easily view the Sangh as the hegemon with its carefully choreographed political blueprint in place to strike at the heart of every region. But at the same time, if we are to recognize how politics function at the level of relations, we must make some distinction, however uncomfortable and difficult, between the individual and the institution, and between precedence and context. Although the reputation of the Sangh and their involvement in violence, hatred, and vituperative politics in many parts of India point—in broad strokes—toward their “militancy” or “fascism,” in the Northeast their activities are largely sanguine, malleable, idealistic, and under the radar. They may not appear to be in your face, abrasive, or combative, but at the same time, they find unequal spaces to exploit and to ally with like-minded persons, organizations, institutions, and ideas to pursue their long-term strategy of winning over hearts and minds. This book therefore is not simply about institutions and their ideas and practices; it is a book about people, people who make up the Sangh and people who are small in number in a place where they execute decisions, a place that, to a large extent, is hostile to their ideas.
Over the five years of this research, I have spoken to and interacted with numerous Sangh activists ranging from those involved in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Janajati Vikas Samiti (JVS; also known as the Kalyan Ashram and Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram [tribal welfare association]), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP; World Hindu Council), Vidya Bharati (VB; educational network), Sewa Bharati (SB; service network), the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya (VKV; schools and research), Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP; all-India student organization), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; political party). Central to their idea of nationalism is that of Hindutva and establishing a Hindu nation (Hindu Rashtra).
The idea of Hindutva comes largely from V. D. Savarkar’s 1923 book Hindutva: Who Is Hindu? (Since its original publication there have been five editions.) It articulates a monumental vision of articulating the essence of Hindu nationalism. It is a book that has inspired the work of the RSS and affiliates (known as parivar, or family) as it has entered into new and uncharted territories, culminating in the BJP’s sweeping electoral victory in 2014. It is also a challenging book, an interpretation of which has propagated violence and hatred against religious minorities—particularly Muslims and Christians—in the name of Hindutva, which continues unabated to make India a majoritarian Hindu state (Chatterji, Hansen, and Jaffrelot 2019; Jaffrelot 2017). So what is Hindutva? How are we to understand an ideology that has polarized the subcontinent in unprecedented ways?
On the title page of Savarkar’s book it says, “A Hindu means a person who regards this land of bharatvarsha, from the Indus to the Seas as his Father-Land as well as his Holy-Land that is the cradle land of his religion” (1969). This way of being Hindu is Hindutva, or Hinduness. In the preface to the second edition of the book, the publisher explains that Savarkar wanted to expand the idea of Hindu and Hinduism beyond its religious sphere to that of a “totality of the cultural, historical, and above all the national aspects along with the religious ones, which mark out the Hindu People as a whole” (1969, iv). Thus, the concepts of Hindutva, Hinduness, and Hindudom were invented to capture this totality. Savarkar says Hindu is comprised of nation (rashtra), race (jati), and civilization (sanskriti) (Savarkar 1969, 101). While this may appear to be a wholly secular and cultural enterprise (after all Savarkar was an atheist—a point that is made persistently by Sangh workers), the problem arises when Savarkar introduces the idea of pitrubhoomi (holy land). The religious element therefore cannot be ignored in this conception of Hindutva. According to the historian Tanika Sarkar, Hindutva paradoxically conjoins “nation with faith, and, in the same move, makes the land of India the property, in a literal sense, of Hindus alone” (2012, 279). While these criteria enable the inclusion of the Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists, other “non-Hindu” religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism can only meet the first two because India is not their “holy land” (Varshney 1993, 231).
The rise of Hindu nationalism and the studies that have accompanied it have grown exponentially in the last few decades (Basu et al. 1993; Bénéï 2008; Doniger and Nussbaum 2015; Froerer 2007; Ghassem-Fachandi 2012; Gopal 1991; Hansen 1999; Hasan 1994; Jaffrelot 1998; Ludden 1996; McKean 1996b; Rajagopal 2001; Sarkar and Butalia 1995; van der Veer 1994). While the concept of Hindutva has become common parlance in most of these studies and used in everyday conversations, we must remember that many of these ideas and concepts have a longer historical development that goes back to the nineteenth-century reform movements in India during colonial times (Gould 2004; Hansen 1999; S. Sarkar 1996; Zavos 2000). William Gould’s work on late colonial India makes precisely this point, showing that Hindu nationalism and its symbolisms also pervaded the political language among the Indian National Congress, who wavered between the majoritarian language of being Hindu and their commitment to secular nationalism. They often ended up playing the “communal” (or religious) game regardless of party ideology (Gould 2004, 1–34). This point demonstrates that we must acknowledge the often diffuse and heterodox nature of Hindutva as it has developed over the decades. Christophe Jaffrelot has argued that one must be attuned to their many forms, particularly the affective “division of labour” (1996, 123) that comprise the many organizations of the Sangh, to its move beyond the strong hold of the “Maharashtrian crucible” (2007, 14) into, say, the Northeast of India and even into diaspora (E. Anderson 2015; Anderson and Longkumer 2019; Kanungo 2011, 2012; Longkumer 2015b; Therwath 2012; Zavos 2008). Indeed, this book is about how they have entered new spaces that are beyond their traditional stronghold, and particularly into the “Mongolian fringe” (Baruah 2013), where the ideology and discourse of Hindutva is largely unfamiliar.
One of the key strands of Hindutva that has permeated the thinking of many Sangh activists in the Northeast derives from M. S. Golwalkar, or Guruji (1877–1958), the second RSS sarsanghchalak (supreme leader). Guruji’s more philosophical and service-oriented approach toward changing the political, social, and cultural aspect of society over the long term surfaces in many of my conversations with Sangh activists. Golwalkar was keen to reorder the country according to the basic conviction of Hindu Rashtra. He says, “Some may feel that all people are not likely to agree to our concept of Hindu Rashtra. But it is immaterial whether some people accept or reject the truth we propound. Our ideas should be clear and our faith in them unswerving. Then alone will the people be persuaded to accept the truth. I am confident that, ultimately, people will be convinced” (Golwalkar 2000, 358). Convincing the people of the region of these national ideals is at the heart of the Sangh project. Their numerous activities all over the region attest to these principles of patient zeal, in the hope that one day the region will come to realize their place within the great Hindu Rashtra.
Speaking about Hindutva at length with me, a Janajati Vikas Samiti (JVS) worker, Anand, was puzzled about the negativity surrounding Hindutva’s association with the Sangh. He had read the early ideologues like Hedgewar, Savarkar, and Golwalkar, coming to the conclusion that Hindutva is a “wonderful concept.” They do not envisage a Hindu state based on religion; Anand in fact categorically stated that Savarkar’s Hindutva was never about that. (It also demonstrates the way various Sangh workers read these works and apply them.) Strip away all these categories and assumptions, and what you see is that Hindutva is about “relations,” he told me. It is how we relate to one another, to animals, nature, deities, and the universe. The image and metaphor used to capture this is nature and, more specifically, trees.
For the Sangh, the tree symbolizes life, strength, stability, and vitality (see Rival 1998). Trees are also the living links between the past and the future, with roots associated with land, culture, identity, and people. In asking the question “Why are trees important in Indian society?” David Haberman (2013, 188) recounts that the answer he regularly received was that Indians’ ancestors venerated trees. He suggests further that, in part because of the link with ancestry, an intimate connection develops between the tree and the person caring for it. Thus the person becomes profoundly attached to the tree, feels greater emotional affection, and becomes committed to honoring the tree (2013, 188). This arboreal description finds a reflection in Anand’s conception of Hindutva as relations (see Chapter 2).
Golwalkar (2000) too uses arborescent imagery to explain national identity in his Bunch of Thoughts, ideas that are recycled in images and words in the Northeast. He uses the tree as a spatial metaphor to argue for a single way of life (Hindu) despite India’s evident heterogeneity (language, customs, habits, etc.). These variations, he says, are of the same tree, the “same sap running through and nourishing all those parts. They are no more a source of dissension and disruption than a leaf or a flower is in the case of a tree. This kind of natural evolution has been a unique feature of our social life” (2000, 92). He calls on the national workers to nourish and strengthen the roots, without which the fruit will be sour and dry, so that “we can stand free and erect amidst all tempests in the world” (176). Question those “separatists” (in the Northeast), he says, who argue that tribals are animists and not Hindus. Isn’t worshipping trees, stones, and snakes the common principle that links both the tribal and the Hindu? In fact, anima, or animus, is the principle of all life that is immanent in creation. “Do not the Hindus all over the country worship the tree? Tulasi, Bilva, Ashwattha are all sacred to the Hindu” (274). This arboreal metaphor of the tree is an apt blueprint for the nation. Take away the place-names, the artificial state boundaries, the towns and cities, and all you have is a nation of trees and roots: it plots a certain order, fixes a point—one nation, one people, and one culture.
Figure 1.1. Local publications emphasizing the idea of indigenous roots. Courtesy of the author.
The aim of this book is to analyze the activities of the Sangh and their impact in the sensitive region of the Northeast of India. This book is first of all about what I call Hindutva becoming, an experiment of how the Sangh ideology of Hindi, Hindu, and Hindustan allows us to think productively about their encounters and activities in the “Mongolian fringe.” Connected closely with Hindutva becoming is the Greater India experiment. This book reflects—explicitly and implicitly—on ideas of Greater India through various modalities. Sangh activists and ideologues evoke the idea of Bharatvarsh, an idea found in the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata covering an area from the “Indus to the seas” and below the Himalayas (Golwalkar 2000; Savarkar 1969, 31–32). The natural features (mountains and rivers), places of pilgrimage, and ritual spaces act as material evidence, grounded in the “earth” (bhumi), that connects the Northeast to Bharatvarsh, which is explored in detail in Chapters 2 and 3 as place-making and about land and belonging. Here, the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” (Pollock 1998) and places of ritual precede administrative maps.
Figure 1.2. Adapted from Joshi (2000), who uses this image as both Bharat and Ashwattha (the peepul tree). Made by the author.
The Sangh also use the irredentist notion of Akhand Bharat (undivided India) drawing on the similar idea of Bharatvarsh, but with more precision to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar, and in some cases Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia.2 To some extent, Akhand Bharat is an idea that the RSS inherited from Savarkar’s ruminations, but it was also asserted by Golwalkar (2000), based on religious, cultural, and now visual evocations:
Our epics and our puranas also present us with the same expansive image of our motherland. Afghanistan was our ancient Upaganasthan. Shalya of the Mahabharata came from there. . . . Even Iran was originally Aryan. Its previous king Reza Shah Pehlavi was guided more by Aryan values than by Islam. Zend Avesta, the holy scripture of Parsis, is mostly Atharva Veda. Coming to the east, Burma is our ancient Brahmadesha. The Mahabharata refers to Iraavat, the modern Irrawady valley, as being involved in that great war. It also refers to Assam as Pragjyotisha since the sun first rises there. In the South, Lanka has had the closest links and was never considered as anything different from the mainland.
It was this picture of our motherland with the Himalayas dipping its arms in the two seas, at Aryan (Iran) in the West and at Sringapur (Singapore) in the East, with Sri Lanka (Ceylon) as a lotus petal offered at her sacred feet by the Southern Ocean, that was constantly kept radiant in people’s mind for so many thousands of years. (2000, 83)
Map 1.1. Map of India and the Northeast (map not to scale). Made by the author.
Akhand Bharat and notions of Greater India manifest too in electoral politics (Chapter 7), particularly as the Sangh promulgate the Citizenship Amendment Act with its reverberations both in terms of ethnic and religious effects. Therefore, I use the term Greater India in a number of ways. As a cultural idea, it articulates the larger cosmopolis of Indic civilization spreading all across Central, South, and Southeast Asia and the Himalayan regions. Questioning widespread assumptions and assertions regarding the Northeast’s separation from this cosmopolis, Sangh ideologues and activists ask how can it be alienated and isolated when the center of influence emanates from there? As a territorial idea, I show the ambiguity generated by Greater India. Many in the Northeast question their “Indian” identity, some even taking up arms to fight for independence from the Indian state. Therefore, Greater India is both a rhetorical device and geocultural method of territorial incorporation. As a visual idea, I want to emphasize the way maps of Greater India allow viewers to imagine the grandeur of what once was, while always inviting them to realize that they are part of a larger geosphere of influence—it is not simply about nation building but about expressing and imagining the fundamental aspects of Hindutva as universal. As a concept of potentiality and becoming, Greater India centers on the greatness of Indian civilization, a consideration made too by Susan Bayly (2004) when she recognizes the far-reaching impact of “imaginings” that are both translocal and supranational. Sangh members, as foot soldiers of the idea of Hindutva, carry forth its message and forge new paths, with transnational designs in mind. Hindutva in the Northeast is a multipronged process of worlding.
Figure 1.3. Map of Glorious Bharat (Greater India), a poster in an RSS hostel in Arunachal Pradesh. Courtesy of the author.
Greater India also confounds in its excesses. It is a revival of Hindu civilization expressed in Hindutva, a cultural greatness that is projected as universal in scope. In this process, it also confronts and collides with other national projects in the Northeast that are similarly about expansive territorial futures—for instance, Greater Nagaland, Greater Mizoram, and independent Assam.
Based on movement, questions, and involutions, this book is thus about a Hindutva experiment. Highlighting the difficulty of conducting experiments amid the becomings that are so characteristic of their work, Deleuze and Guattari remind us that “although there is no preformed logical order to becomings and multiplicities, there are criteria, and the important thing is that they not be used after the fact, that they be applied in the course of events, that they be sufficient to guide us through the dangers” (2000, 293; italics in original). This book is a forensic examination of a Hindutva laboratory that is attempting to promote a singular identity amid the blustering and fractal nature of belonging in this vast region known as the Northeast of India, comprising Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura.3 In this process, they seek to redefine what it means to be “Indian” (or Bharatiya) by deconstructing, remaking, and reassembling the very nature of Hindutva. Inasmuch as Hindutva in these frontier spaces is strategically forged, it also reveals the nature of Hindutva as dynamic, malleable, and a creative force of becoming as it confronts new spaces. The quotidian lives of individuals as they commit themselves to serving the nation and their encounters in the face of recalcitrance are where the real process of becoming unfolds.
Thirdly, this book is about the Northeast of India as much as it is about Hindutva. The Northeast is engulfed in numerous voices and variations of ethnic, national, religious, and cultural activities that a book like this cannot fully capture. What this book can do is try to make sense of this rich but scarred and fractured landscape that has existed as an anomaly within the Indian state, as it has historically challenged the idea of India, in all its magnitude and incongruity. I look at how this Indic movement, or this gaze, this Hindutva gaze—with its ideology, its criteria, firmly rooted in Hindi, Hindu, and Hindustan—confronts the Mongolian fringe with its own orbit of historical, cultural, and political constellations. This study is centered around how the complex algorithms of “homeland” politics engineered by ethnopolitical movements, with their own culture of nationalism, negotiate with Hindutva forces. It illuminates the salience and tenacity of indigenous nationalisms, and how they confront long-standing questions of land, blood, and belonging. If the cultural politics of belonging has been the cradle upon which the region has found a safe enclosure, the ideology of Hindutva asks challenging questions about how this land is constituted using the arboreal image of roots that share the same ground.
Fourthly, grounded in anthropology, this book is an ethnography of passion and politics, in the sense that I have observed the intensity of human actions in the first person, face-to-face. My task here in presenting the voices of individuals involved in the Sangh is to convey a sense of “meaningful striving” (Mahmood 1996, 21), enabling their words to animate their purpose. Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, in working with Sikh militants, argues that her ethnography is an effort “to bring to the reader a sense of the immediacy of the Sikh militant world. It is less distant and more accessible than most people think” (1996, 21). Throughout the book, I have similarly allowed different voices to resonate through their words to evoke a sense of immediacy, emotion, and passion as they are caught up in the events of their own, and sometimes not of their own, making. Most of my conversations and interviews were with male Sangh workers. Other people that I interacted with were allies sympathetic to their cause, while some were critics opposed to this saffron wave. Due to the nature of the Sangh and its strong male presence in the Northeast, it is their view that dominates.
The spaces where these interactions happened were varied; I was invited to some events, but mostly our conversations took place in offices and homes. Many of their activities were not openly advertised nor their presence obviously visible in the public sphere. This secrecy is because Hindutva activities are treated with suspicion. For example, despite receiving initial invitations to visit RSS shakhas (lit. branches, but regular RSS group meetings) in Dimapur (Nagaland), Guwahati (Assam), and Shillong (Meghalaya), these meetings never materialized, perhaps because local Sangh members anticipated the uneasiness of my presence in their intimate affairs, where the disclosure of allies and sympathizers might lead to awkward conversations, possible reproach, and unwitting consequences.
Finally, the book contributes to wider debates on Hindutva and the Sangh. While much of the contemporary scholarship on Hindutva has focused on pogroms and their involvement in excluding Muslims and minorities, Hindutva violence is quieter in the Northeast. In fact, I suggest that the marked persecution of proponents of Hindutva in the region requires its ideologies to take a more unconventional shape when compared to their counterparts in other parts of India. This means that they engage primarily in social service (seva) and countering the hegemony of the “Christian other” in the sphere of ideas and polemics, and in allying with non-Christian movements to pursue their agenda of Hindutva through cultural appropriation and assimilation with challenging consequences for intercommunity relations in the region. Hindutva actions may foment violence, but, importantly, they do so indirectly.
There are currently no substantive works on Sangh activities and the ideology of Hindutva in Northeast India. Only limited studies have been done focusing on Arunachal Pradesh (Kanungo 2012, 2011) and Assam and Nagaland (Bhattarcharjee 2016; Longkumer 2010, 2015b). If Hindutva is one of the most important facets of modern Indian history, comprehending its transformation in the Northeast of India, a region that has been largely ignored, has vital implications for our understanding of not only the work of the Hindu right but also the very concept of India, and indeed Greater India. This book will draw on and contribute to the vast literature on the Sangh and their philosophy, while providing comparative theoretical value from a region where their activities have remained largely unexplored.
1. “Abducted RSS Men Killed in Tripura,” Times of India, 29 July 2001.
2. Christophe Jaffrelot, “This Land, This Nation,” Indian Express, 12 January 2016. Myanmar/Burma are used interchangeably, depending on the sources and context, throughout this book.
3. Sikkim, recognized as one of the northeastern states, has been omitted from my analysis, but some issues may resonate.