Last Monday, Tikrikilla, a tiny town in the plains of Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills district, wore a festive look. It was Saraswati Puja. In eastern parts of the country, the spring festival of Basant Panchami is an occasion to pay obeisance to the Hindu goddess of learning. Freshly bathed young men and women, decked up in traditional weaves, dotted the dusty roads, making their way to the many pandals spread across town.
Saraswati Puja has always been celebrated with enthusiasm in multicultural Tikrikilla – the town’s population includes Christian Garo tribals, people from the Koch, Hajong and Rabha tribes (most of who have embraced Hinduism), Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus, and a smattering of North Indian traders who have made the town their home. But the weeks leading up to the festival this year were marked by an uncharacteristic nervousness.
The trigger was a “viral WhatsApp video”. Said LA Sangma, the principal of a private school, “No one knew where it came from, but everyone in town seemed to have received it.”
Social media scare
The video begins with four young men identifying themselves as members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an organisation that is part of the Sangh Parivar – a network of Hindu Right-wing groups loosely affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological parent. After the brief introduction, the men make a pledge of sorts. Their target over the next few years, they affirm, is to ensure that every Christian missionary school in the country has a basil sapling – considered a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Tulsi – in its courtyard and celebrates Saraswati Puja.
The significance of the video was not lost on Sangma, who is also the president of the Meghalaya unit of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad, a Hindu Right-wing student outfit.
As the BJP prepares to mount a challenge to the ruling Congress in the February 27 Assembly elections in Meghalaya, the Garo Hills are crucial to its fortunes – the five districts in the region will elect MLAs to 24 of the 60 seats in the state Assembly. Even a semblance of a gain in the region would be near impossible without the support of the Garos, almost all of whom are Christians.
However, it has not quite gone according to plan for the party in the Garo Hills in recent times. “There are so many of these WhatsApp messages these days,” said Sangma. “I have asked the party to clarify, tell people that all this is untrue. Saraswati Puja has always been celebrated here, but all this is creating unnecessary apprehension in people’s minds.”
Sangma is convinced there is a concerted campaign by the BJP’s opponents to discredit the party. “Our leaders are talking about change, but some people are bringing in religion to divert attention,” she insisted, pointing to another WhatsApp message that had gone viral recently. This message carries the image of a pamphlet bearing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s name and threatening to “erase Christianity by 2021”. It states, “Your Christianity is samasya, so our mission is ghar wapsi.”
“It is not even the correct logo of the RSS,” said an exasperated Sangma. “But all this is making people believe that BJP is anti-Christian.”
‘BJP is anti-Christian party’
Indeed, as one travels through the Garo Hills, it is a refrain heard often enough: “BJP is anti-Christian party.” Incidentally, the most common evidence people provide in support of that thesis is an event that took place thousands of kilometres away from the misty hills of Meghalaya – the detention in December of Catholic carol singers by the Madhya Pradesh Police on the complaint of Hindu activists who accused them of carrying out forced conversions. “If our brothers and sisters are being targeted like that in a BJP-ruled state, how can we vote for the BJP?” asked a state government employee in Tura, the Garo Hills’ biggest town.
By most accounts, the almost vehement resistance to the BJP is a fairly recent phenomenon. The Garo Students’ Union’s Chief Executive Committee president, Tengsak G Momin, said the party had started making inroads in the Garo Hills, riding on its landslide victory in the Assam Assembly elections in 2016. “Like most other parts of the country, Garo Hills was also influenced by the BJP’s rise in the rest of the country,” said Momin.
But it was short-lived. On May 23 last year, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests passed a notification – which has since been withdrawn – banning the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets. While the ban evoked sharp reactions in all tribal states in the North East, which were convinced it was a ploy to ban beef, the BJP witnessed a churning in the Garo Hills that was marked by en masse resignations. One of the more high-profile resignations was that of Bernard N Marak, president of the party’s West Garo Hills unit, headquartered in Tura. “Before they came up with the notification, the BJP was growing in the Garo Hills,” claimed Marak. “The entire tribal belt in the area was also with the BJP, but because of their dictatorial attitude, it’s all over now. The party’s growth has stagnated now. They tried to trample over people’s religious and cultural beliefs. That had never happened before.”
People in the area tend to agree. Said Stubent G Marak, a resident of Rongjeng in East Garo Hills, “The BJP was on the rise, but after the beef issue, everyone is anti now.” Alex G Sangma, an anti-corruption and transparency activist in Mendipathar in neighbouring North Garo Hills, said that while it hurt him if anyone spoke ill of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he was put off by the BJP’s religious agenda. “They bring dharm [religion] everywhere,” he complained. “That will lead to their downfall. I wish they didn’t do that as we have never had a prime minister like Modi before – so dynamic and capable. But what happened in Madhya Pradesh and the beef issue has made people very wary of the BJP.”
Anger against Congress
The BJP has been in damage-control mode ever since, training its guns on the Congress government’s alleged corruption. On January 6, BJP president Amit Shah flew into Tikrikilla from Guwahati in a helicopter and launched an offensive against claimed Congress misrule.
The choice of venue – a non-descript town in the plains – was strategic, BJP leaders say. It is the entry point to the Garo Hills’ plain belt, which has a sizable non-Christian population. Sizeable parts of at least seven of the 24 constituencies in the Garo Hills lie in the plains. Resentment against the Congress government runs high here. While the Christian population is decidedly suspicious of the BJP, people from all communities bemoan the “lack of development” under the Congress and claim they are looking forward to a change.
The state highway that runs through the area is little more than an uneven dirt track in most places and a major source of disaffection among residents. “The nearest half-decent medical facilities for most people in the plain belt are in Goalpara in Assam, but if you drive an ailing patient down this road, she will die before she reaches the hospital,” said Om Sharma, a businessman in Tikrikilla.
Sarat Saha, a restaurateur in adjoining Phulbari, echoed Sharma. “I had voted for Congress last time, but there is no road, no progress,” he said. “I would vote for anyone else but not the Congress.”
The BJP is looking to cash in on this antipathy, particularly palpable among the non-Christian residents of the Garo Hills’ plain belt. Rohinath Barchung, who is vying for a BJP ticket from Tikrikilla constituency, said people were disillusioned with the Congress, though he also admitted there was “an influence of what is happening in other BJP-ruled states”, referring to the alleged persecution of minorities in states like Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand.
“Very few Christians may want BJP, but we have got enough of a Hindu base here,” said Barchung. “And the Garo votes will get divided because there are too many Garo candidates.”
Barchung said Amit Shah’s rally was proof of the BJP’s soaring popularity in the region. “It was the biggest rally ever in Meghalaya,” he claimed. “The same field where Amit Shah came, Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao had also come, but then people had come to see the helicopter. This time people came to see Amit Shah.”
In addition, the BJP is also banking on party strongmen with a well-established support base in the region to offset its anti-Christian image. For instance, Abu Bahar Siddique, a farmer in Tikrikilla, said he would vote for KC Boro – who is in the fray for a BJP ticket – irrespective of the party he represents. “Good times, bad times, he has always been with us,” said Siddique. “BJP, Congress we don’t see all that, we vote for the person.” Boro, a former Congress legislator from Tikrikilla constituency, is now the Meghalaya president of the BJP’s Kisan Morcha.
The Congress, for its part, is defensive about allegations of not doing enough to improve the Garo Hills’ failing infrastructure. “You are doing injustice to me if you are judging me on the basis of that one road,” said Abu Taher Mondal, the Congress legislator from Phulbari, referring to the state highway connecting his constituency with other parts of the Garo Hills. The highway has become a major talking point ahead of elections.
He claimed there was a “problem with the funding pattern” of the road. “It is under the NEC [North Eastern Council],” he said. “If you look at the Assam stretch of the road, it was worse till they undertook repair work recently.” When it was pointed out that the North East Council guidelines make it incumbent on the state to ensure the maintenance of roads, Mondal claimed the council’s refusal to release funds on time had withheld repair work.
Brushing aside suggestions that there was a perception among voters that Congress rule had not ushered in sufficient development in the Garo Hills except for specific pockets, Mondal claimed that “individuals matter, not party”.
He said, “Today, if I go to the BJP, my supporters will follow me there. But not all as there is a fear psychosis among the Garos and the Muslims about the BJP.”
Photographs courtesy Arunabh Saikia.