Did the RSS rise in Assam by projecting Bharat Mata as a counter to the ideology of the ULFA?

‘The Last Battle of Saraighat’ offers an insider’s perspective on the popularity of the BJP in the North-East.

In the imagination of the RSS, Assam was a wounded limb of the Indian civilisation. The backdrop of Partition is an exegesis of the Sangh’s conception in Assam. As the state’s history had been punctuated by several violent movements, demands of nationalities within nationality and a narrative perennially vexed with the issue of cultural erosion, it provided the RSS ample reason to propagate the idea of integration on national issues.

In Assam, the Sangh saw an opportunity to fix the battered limb of a wounded Bharat Mata. The journey of the Sangh in Assam also reflects the internal journey RSS embarked on to react and respond to a culturally diverse sociopolitical reality.

It is interesting to examine why the Assamese civilization with such deep roots in history and such strong sociocultural connections with the rest of India embarked on a visceral quest of identity and armed nationalism.

It is equally compelling to observe how proponents of clashing streams of ideologies within this quest battled among themselves to prove the veracity of their narratives. While one tried to carve a new identity for Assam, the other tried to integrate the state with the larger nationhood.

The militant nationalism propagated by the ULFA can best be summed up in ULFA chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa’s words, “Asom and Asom’s identity is not part of India and Indian identity.” In a similar vein, Ajit Bhuyan, one of the ideologues of ULFA writes, “We in Assam often wonder as to why there has been so much concern to depict India as one nation state...the undisputable truth is ‘India is a multinational state, a land of innumerable nationalities, big or small, dominant or weak.’” Later, Parag Das, the torchbearer of ULFA ideology in one of his books avers, “We are not getting carried away by an emotional branding of Bharat Mata and hence propagate one unified India.”

While the passionate appeal of ULFA found resonance among its cadre, there was an equally potent voice of protest dismissing the grander designs of ULFA. Udayon Misra, responding to the ULFA chairman, says, “In trying to build up his argument, the ULFA Chairman has made a selective reading of Assam’s recent history...He has not mentioned the participation of the Assamese masses in the freedom struggle against the British and the role played by the countless leading intellectuals in the Congress-led movement. Not to speak of reformer saints like Sankardeva for whom ‘Bharatvarsha’ was such an important concept and who contributed immensely to bringing Assam within the Indian ‘mainstream’.”

The limits of ULFA lay in its stubborn appropriation of colonial and postcolonial history of Assam from the lens of anti-Delhi-ism and subnationalism. Noted academician and author Nani Gopal Mahanta traces the failure of the ULFA in the following words, “Terror-driven agenda with exclusive focus on arms, international network, money and a hopeless ideology have gradually made ULFA a near irrelevant force in Assam...Parag’s greatest failure was that he failed to understand the pulse of the people with whom he wanted to liberate Assam from India.”

Against this strong and militant ideological force of the ULFA, the Sangh remained committed to its cherished goal of a unified Bharat Mata.

The rootedness of the Sangh in celebrating the historical and cultural DNA of Assam and its people and in recounting the ancient connection of Assam with the rest of India was a steep departure from the ULFA brand of nationalism.

The RSS traced the history of Assam way back in time and recreated the ancient glories of Pragjyotishpur and Kamrupa (4th century AD). The reference to these kingdoms has been made in quasi-mythical-historical texts like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Kalikha Purana, and travelled from Assam to the rest of the Indian society. In bringing these to the fore, the Sangh created a sense of pride in the Assamese people.

For example, during local festivities like Bihu and Durga Puja, the swayamsevaks of the Sangh began erecting pandals to honour the portrait of Bharat Mata. With the vexed question of identity looming large in Assam, the RSS stitched the delicate narratives of regionalism and nationalism together by merging the national with the local through the invocation of an emotional idea of the motherland by introducing an element of belief and emotional appeal.

The Sangh changed the ideological fulcrum of the debate in Assam and emerged as a credible alternative to the left or left-inspired portrayals of Assam. It took a long struggle to fructify and popularise the nationalist sentiment in Assam, which is often articulated by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad as “Kachh ho ya Guwahati, apna desh apni maati [Whether Kutch or Guwahati, it is one nation – our nation, our soil].”

By 1975, all districts in Assam had Sangh shakhas. The gradual brick-by-brick establishment of the Sangh in Assam has been a result of decades of perseverant work and selfless service by swayamsevaks from all across the country. Often the swayamsevaks and pracharaks were not from Assam. It took decades of commitment to prepare the local swayamsevaks for top organizational roles. Eventually, in 2014, RSS appointed a local Assamese, Baisistha Bujarbaruah, as the prant pracharak of Assam.

Most of the early swayamsevaks in Assam lived their entire lives in a culture and society so unique and different from theirs that they happily learnt to enjoy local cuisines, learnt local languages, adopted and adapted to local customs and traditions so that they could serve well the local population.

But this journey of the Sangh in Assam has not just been a romantic story lived by the Sangh in ideal conditions. Creating a counter narrative in an atmosphere of vitiated political and intellectual environment has been one of the greatest achievements of the Sangh. Even after losing so many swayamsevaks and pracharaks to violence, the RSS kept its firm resolve and commitment to achieve the goals of national integration.

Excerpted with permission from The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-East, Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha, Penguin Random House India.

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