Vol. XLII No. 10 March 11, 2018

The RSS and Politics of Tribal Identity

Archana Prasad

THE results of the Tripura elections have revealed the unholy nexus between conservative tribal identity politics and the RSS led Sangh Parivar. The results show that the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) won 8 out the 9 seats it contested in alliance with the BJP. Out of the 20 Scheduled Tribe seats in the state, 18 were won by the BJP-IPFT alliance. In addition to this, the BJP and the RSS effectively used the regional ‘tribal parties’ in Meghalaya and Nagaland to expand its political domination of the region. By doing this, the Sangh has begun to imply that its brand of nationalism is not anti-minority because the election results show that “people have accepted its model of development in Christian minority dominated regions also”. The post-election propaganda machine of the RSS reveals that the organisation has been working to build a base amongst the tribal people of the North East since the early 1990s. An exploration of this process of RSS expansion in the tribal areas can help us to understand how the alliance between the RSS-BJP combine and the tribal organisations has been constructed.

THE RSS AND TRIBALS: A BRIEF BACKGROUND                                          

The RSS work in the tribal areas can be divided into three broad phases; each laying the basis and the foundation for the ‘next step’. The current phenomenon is characterised by a right wing radicalisation of tribal politics and identities through selective appropriation and moulding of tribal institutions and structures by RSS affiliated organisations. The earliest work of Hindu nationalist organisations in tribal areas can be traced to the early 1940s in Madhya Pradesh. By the late 1930s many princely states had already passed the anti-conversion laws under the influence of the Hindu Mahasabha and in the mid-1940s the political right, both inside and outside the Congress, raised the issue of ‘conversions’ by Christian missionaries. The resultant report of the Niyogi Committee banned the work of the Christian missionaries in the fifth schedule areas. This formed the entry point and the basis for the formation and work of the RSS affiliated Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad in central India by the early 1950s. The work of the Parishad was said to be “social and cultural” in its focus with a particular emphasis on education and health that would socialise tribal people into the ‘mainstream’ and ultimately lead to their inclusion within the Hindutva fold. Done in missionary mode, this work would also lead to the acceptance of the RSS by tribal societies and integrate their pantheons and practices within the larger Hindutva fold.

This mode of operation created the foundation for the second phase of the RSS work which started with the ‘ghar vapasi’ campaign in the 1970s and 1980s.  This campaign wanted to give an image of an inclusive political Hindu nationalism that would unite all castes and tribes under a broad umbrella. The inclusion of dalit, adivasi and OBC leaders and the expansion of the political base of the BJP was reflective of this. The main idea was that cross caste and community alliances would create a broad spectrum that would counter all movements of resistance by democratic forces.

Such a widening of social base has put the RSS in a position to penetrate caste and tribal institutions and thus affect polarisation within tribal and caste groups which characterises the current phase of the RSS work in tribal areas. The first signs of this were seen in the Kandamal riots of 2008 when the Sangh mobilised the Kondh samaj against converted Christian tribals and argued that only non-Christians should get benefits under the Scheduled Tribe category. The next major signal of this polarisation was the riots in Kokrajhar in 2012 when the Bodo militants attacked ‘Bangladeshi Muslim refugees’. It should be noted that the leaders of Bodoland received active support from the RSS. Similar instances can be found in many other regions like Nagaland, Arunachal and Mizoram where the RSS has provided political and social support to forces that could at one time be termed by them as ‘separatist’ and ‘anti-national’. This adaptation of the RSS to the political challenges in tribal regions has allowed it to change and mould the character of tribal identity in a way that brings about religious polarisation within tribal groups. Thus a non-Christian tribal identity is preferred over one that is influenced by the Christians, so that their leaders can ultimately be incorporated into the RSS fold.


Soon after the results were declared, Himanta Biswas Sarma (the BJP in charge of North East) claimed that the North Eastern expansion of the party was now complete after two decades of work. By its own account, work started in the early 1990s with 15 Sangh affiliated social welfare organisations opening offices in the region. RSS ideologues claim that service provided by them to the tribal people laid the basis for the current phase of support for the BJP. In 1995 the RSS had 650 units of its affiliates in the region. By 2017 the number of these units increased to 6000 branches of affiliate organisations. Working in Christian dominated regions, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram popularised the work of local icons that were projected as resisting Christian conversions. The process was most evident in Nagaland where the work of freedom fighter Rani Ma Guidenlu was popularised by the RSS by setting  up the Zaliang Rang Harakka Association. The Association is also a Hindu organisation that projected the Rani as an anti-Christian pro-tribal activist to influence the Naga people across the country. In Manipur and Meghalaya too, the Sangh boasts of the sharp rise in the number of pracharaks in the last three years.

In this situation the election of a BJP government at the centre in 2014 led to a gestalt switch in the plans of the Sangh. It leveraged its influence over the union government which would put in place political processes that would lead to discrediting a section of the anti-BJP tribal leadership. The RSS’s proposed “Draft Naga Peace Accord” was a ploy to engineer this and create the NDPP which finally led to electoral success in the 2018 elections. The impact of this was also felt in Tripura where the RSS shifted more than 3000 workers from across the country to reach every nook and corner of the tribal area. The Left and democratic forces must take note that the rise that the rapid intensification for the integration of the North Eastern into the NDA’s Hindutva project is based on the silent work of the RSS. In this sense the success of the BJP is only symptomatic of the impact that the RSS has had in the region over the last two decades.