RSS Reaches Out

article

Across the north-east, the RSS has been quietly building up its presence through a network of schools imparting “holistic education”. This is especially the case in Assam where Assembly elections are due next year. The saffron outfit is also reaching out to minorities like the Muslims, determined to bring them within its fold. BY ARCHISMAN DINDA

Historically, the north-eastern states - of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh - have always been pariah land, geographically culturally and politically from the rest of India.

From the Hindi heartland, the states looked like a distant country, which at most captured the diversity of India but failed to enthrall the mind. However, post Narendra Modi’s victory in the 2014 general elections, the battle for the hearts and minds of the north-east seems set to intensify with the growing presence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates, working to further their agenda in the region.

The BJP clinched half of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam and opened its account in Arunachal Pradesh winning one constituency. As much as 36.6 per cent of voters chose the saffron party in Assam, transforming it from an outfit of Hindi speaking people to a mass-based party. The RSS’ strategy will be to increase its backing among marginalized communities and to help the BJP make inroads in tea garden areas and among Adivasis. The parivar has demanded that Hindu refugees from Bangladesh be given citizenship, which was later adopted by the BJP to develop its base.

Assam chief minister TarunGogoi credits the RSS for BJP’s stunning performance. “RSS cadres have worked silently leading to a huge undercurrent among the voters. They connected with all disgruntled leaders of Congress and used them against us,“ Gogoi told Parliamentarian magazine.

Thousands of RSS volunteers have been working all over the region to turn the tide in favour of the BJP. They took to community contact programs in all the states (known as the seven sisters). They also mobilized students in colleges and universities and most important, opened schools all over the region to mobilize future pracharaks.

With a pracharak as prime minister for the first time, the RSS has concentrated its efforts in the region seeing it as crucial for the future of the Sangh Parivar.

“One of the biggest reasons why we went all out in the general elections is that the organization was weakening everyday as membership had dried up and whole timers were difficult to find,” said a senior member of the organization from Nagpur unwilling to be named. “But the north-east is an unchartered territory where a lot can be done and the process has started,” he added.

Sangh leaders want to capture the very young and create a base for the party which will eventually help “saffonize” the region in years to come. RSS sister organizations like Sewa Bharati, Vidya Bharati, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Friends of Tribal Society (FTS) or Van Bandhu Parishad (VBP), Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bharat Kalyan Prathisthan (a unit of the VHP), Bharatiya Jan Seva Sansthan (BJSS) and the Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh, have been running both formal and informal education units including balwadis (pre-schools), Bal Sanskar Kendras (middle school), hostels, residential schools, night schools, coaching centres and primary, secondary and senior secondary schools across the seven sisters.

The campaign to ‘saffronize’ the tribal belts of the north-east has gone almost unnoticed. According to SevaDisha, a five-yearly report on the activities of the SanghParivar, there has been “steady growth” in the last seven years.

The RSS as an organization has always penetrated deep into society, a strategy which has delivered results in many parts of the country. The organization has started close to 1000 Ekal Vidyalayas or one-teacher schools in Tripura, Assam and Manipur (one local teacher and 40 students). More than 22,000 children now attend these schools where instruction is for about three hours every day. The emphasis is on imparting ‘holistic education’, which includes Hindu prayers, ‘Indian values’ and promoting nationalism.

“The idea was a start fresh. And what can be better than to start with children of impressionable age and take the task forward. We as an organization never look for overnight success and that is where our success lies,” admits a full time prachrak in the region.

The failure of the Indian state to provide even primary education in large swathes of the north-east has left a void there and the RSS is taking full advantage of the vacuum. Despite registers showing growing numbers of schools opened and teachers recruited, the real picture is quite grim. For many decades, the only major private educational enterprise in far-flung parts of the country was the Catholic Church with its schools and colleges.

The biggest test for the RSS will be in 2016 when Assam goes to polls. The Sangh Parivar apprehends that its sustained work over so many years could be undercut by infighting in the BJP over the chief ministerial candidate

Christian missionaries of different denominations have been working in the area since colonial times. More than 70 percent of the population of Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya are Christian and their numbers are growing in Manipur and Arunachal too.

However, the unique part of this outreach program is the effort RSS is making to reach out to the Muslims. With just eleven months before Assam goes to polls, the Muslim RashtriyaManch (MRM) of the RSS is making inroads into the Muslim-dominated constituencies of the state, where it forms 30 per cent of electorate. With an aim to narrow the gap between members of the community and the BJP ahead of the assembly election in the state, another saffron organization Jamaat Ulema-e-Hind which worked extensively in Jammu & Kashmir, is also engaged in bringing the Muslim community closer to the BJP.

“Our primary objective is to bring the Muslims closer to the party. Others have created an atmosphere where we have been projected as anti-Muslim, which is far from the truth. Development is for all and Muslims have a huge role to play in the development of India,” Indresh Kumar, senior RSS functionary said.

However, the outreach program has not gone down well with various RSS functionaries. They are critical of the senior leadership for diluting the central objective of the organization. “We are not a political party neither are we required to help the BJP win every election. If we patronize the Muslims we may hurt our core constituency,” an RSS old timer warned.

Others object to this view, saying it betrayed a “dogmatic understanding” of the world. “Muslims are a reality in states like Assam, Bengal and Bihar. No one can wish them away. It is important to bring them into the fold. He should not forget that he was most vocal in supporting APJ Abdul Kalam as presidential nominee in 2002,” said another RSS leader requesting anonymity.

Gogoi has accused “the power-hungry saffron brigade” of increasing its presence with the assembly polls in mind. “It all about winning elections and strengthening the party base through the façade of social work,” he claimed.

Other chief ministers of the region like Mukul Sangma of Meghalaya have brushed aside the threat from the RSS. “We hear from media about the inroads the RSS is making, but in reality they lack leadership in the region,” he said.

But a Congress leader preparing to join the BJP warned that overconfidence was the Achilles heel of his party, along with the belief that the Gandhi family would enable them to tide over any crisis. “The ground is slipping beneath their feet and they are resting on their laurels,” he warned.

The biggest test for the RSS will be in 2016 when Assam goes to polls. The SanghParivar apprehends that its sustained work over so many years could be undercut by infighting in the BJP over the chief ministerial candidate. But a local leader also admitted: “We do not work for one election. It is process of building from ground upwards which may take several years but eventually works in our favour.”

Summary

  • The RSS has been quietly building up its base in the north-east, seeking to win friends and influence politics
  • A network of schools imparting “holistic education” has come up with the idea of influencing children
  • The RSS through its outfits is also reaching out to minorities like the Muslims who can steer poll outcomes in states like Assam
  • Some senior RSS cadres are not comfortable with reaching out to Muslims warning that it could impact on their core support
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