For years, freedom fighter Rani Gaidinliu’s role in the resistance against the British rule had become relegated to the periphery. This year, in the centenary anniversary of her birth, her contribution is being marked again. But these celebrations have come with an invidious attempt by right-wing groups to hijack her narrative into the folds of Hinduism.

Gaidinliu was born in 1915 in a small Manipuri village called Luangkao and into one of the three Zeliangrong tribes called the Rongmei Nagas. Aged 16, she took over the unfulfilled cause of her cousin Haipou Jadonang, the Rongmeis’ spiritual leader. Jadonang’s movement had sought the end of the British Raj besides a revival of the Zeliangrong religion and the establishment of the Naga self-rule (or Naga Raj).

Quickly filling Jadonang’s shoes, Gaidinliu led a resistance against the British. The appellation “Rani” was given to her by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1937. Captured and sentenced to life imprisonment, she spent 14 years in prison, the longest incarceration suffered by any Indian freedom fighter. For this untiring fight against the British Raj, the Indian government awarded her the Padma Bhushan.

However, Gaidinliu’s struggle did not end with the Raj’s departure. Soon after, she began protesting against Christian missionaries who she warned were eroding the Zeliangrong culture and tradition. Till her death in February 1993, she kept up the demand for the creation of a Zeliangrong Administrative Unit out of the states of Manipur, Nagaland and Assam.

Indigenous peoples' battles

Today, Gaidinliu’s legacy is viewed primarily through the prism of her role in the freedom struggle. But there are larger parallels between her movement and the everyday battle of indigenous people worldwide against the onslaught on their resources and way of life.

Rani Gaidinliu’s movement against external forces has been appropriated today by right-wing groups like the Vishva Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. They have absorbed her life history into their propaganda, where the British and Christian missionaries are the enemies. What’s more, they have arrogated the religion which Gaidinliu followed as similar to Hinduism.

There is a history to this appropriation. The VHP started to interface with Gaidinliu as early as in the 1960s. Even then, they tried to manufacture a relation between Hinduism and Zeliangrong’s religion. At that time Gaidinliu wanted to protect her people’s custom and tradition from the work of Christian missionaries, so she turned to the VHP as a mark of protest against Christianity.

Tensions had been arising periodically between followers of Christianity and Gaidinliu’s movement, which viewed Christianity as an annihilator of their way of life. But the dispute really boiled over in 1958, when the Naga National Council coined the slogan “Nagaland shall be a kingdom for Christ”. The slogan’s obvious exclusion of Zeliangrong people on the basis of religion sparked Gaidinliu’s ire.

Devoid of all context

Hinduism’s influence had, in fact, reached the region earlier. When Jadonang was spearheading the “Naga Raj” campaign along with a religious movement, the Manipur king had proposed to spread Hindu missionaries’ work in the hill districts.

In the reformed religion launched by Jadonang, emphasis was given to Tingkao Ragwang (a supreme creator). From Vaishnavism, Zeliangrong tribes borrowed the significance of temple. The Bisnu worshipped by Zeliangrong is seen as a variation of the Hindu Vishnu but has its distinct identity in the beliefs of Zeliangrong people. It is also crucial to take note of how people adopting Hinduism and Christianity viewed their animistic religion and culture to be inferior.

It is praiseworthy that Gaidinliu’s struggle is being recognised in the 100th year of her birth. But that fight has been stripped of its context by right-wing groups. The freedom struggle of the Zeliangrong people is now portrayed as a religious movement. The RSS, VHP and the Bharatiya Janata Party have appropriated the story of Rani Gaidinliu to suit their propaganda.

This appropriation reflects in their insistence on addressing Gaidinliu as ‘Ma’ (a conflation of Zeliangrong’s religion with Hinduism) and in their effort to extract solidarity out of Christian missionaries' criticism of Gaidinliu. All this does a disservice to Gaidinliu and her people.

The centenary was marked on January 26 by the RSS, National Committee for Birth Centenary Celebration of Rani Ma Gaidinliu, the people of Zeliangrong, as well as the people of Manipur, Nagaland and Assam. But the celebrations will be incomplete unless her unfulfilled goals are realised and Zeliangrong people reconcile with other ethnic communities with shared histories.