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For BJP, Northeast India is ‘Exempted From Hindutva’

The difference is noteworthy as BJP's Hindutva politics in the Hindi heartland takes a backseat in a region deemed crucial for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
For BJP, Northeast India is ‘Exempted From Hindutva’

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Kolkata: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigns on totally different issues when it comes to elections in Northeast India.

"What holds good and has been paying in the Hindi heartland will be disastrous for us in the Christian-dominated states of the Northeast. We are steadily improving our presence in the Northeast because we want to enlist the support of the large tribal population in that region," a BJP leader said.

The difference is noteworthy as BJP's Hindutva politics in the Hindi heartland takes a backseat in a region deemed crucial for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. 

"Moreover, the Northeast accounts for 25 Lok Sabha seats, including four Christian-dominated states of Nagaland (one), Mizoram (one) and Meghalaya (two). Manipur, with a 40% Christian population, is also important for us as it has two Lok Sabha seats. With Assam's 14 constituencies, the Northeast has, in all, 25 Lok Sabha seats. Therefore, the BJP's campaign content for the region bears no similarity with that of the Hindi heartland", said some party leaders who campaigned in Nagaland and Meghalaya for the Assembly election held on February 27, the results of which were declared on March 2.

The BP leaders, who were reluctant to be mentioned by name, reacted thus in response to NewsClick's query whether the party consciously soft-pedals its pronounced majoritarian agenda and, by extension, its allied cultural dimensions. BJP categorises the Christian majority areas as ‘exempted from Hindutva’ campaign content.

Stretching the point, the leaders cited the widely reported statement made a few days before the polling by its Meghalaya state president Earnest Mawrie.

"There is no restriction on beef eating in Meghalaya; I eat beef too. In Meghalaya, everybody eats beef. It is the lifestyle of the people; no one can stop it. There is no such rule in India also. In Meghalaya, we have a slaughterhouse. Everybody takes a cow or a pig and brings it to the market," he said.

The BJP leaders admitted that the party central leadership had opted for a liberal approach for the region, where it has been gaining political space, even by regularly engineering defections, since 2016, when it formed its maiden ministry in Assam and was able to retain power in 2021. Aware that Sangh Parivar's frontal organisations are viewed with suspicion by Christians in general, BJP loses no opportunity during election time in the Northeast states with a concentration of Christians to stress that the party is not against the community.

Nagaland BJP president Temjen Imna Along Longkumer, when asked about the party's campaign content for the Northeast, in general, and Christian-majority states, in particular, told NewsClick: "The campaign content is conceptualised by the top leadership keeping in mind the cultural and religious distinctiveness of the people of the states. It is as much a question of how we ensure that people are comfortable with what we say as to see how the campaign pays dividends. What can be said in the Hindi heartland cannot be told to the Northeast electorate. The strategy devised for the Christian-dominated areas is, in its own way inclusive. It's a sensitive issue; it has to be tackled with sensitivity. That's what we are doing."

Informed quarters admit to the dilemma that BJP faces from its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and outfits, such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal. The dilemma stems as much from the stance of pro-RSS elements within the party as from the attitude of hardliners in RSS.

In the states with Christian concentration, the church factor automatically surfaces. Attacks on followers of the religion, churches and even educational institutions run by church administrations in recent years in different parts of the county have been a cause of concern to church leaders. Recently, in the context of the Assembly elections in Nagaland and Meghalaya, they met in Guwahati on February 17, to discuss the issue and urge the electorate to follow their conscience and elect candidates who care for the community and the country.

Asked whether they have reasons to believe that their appeal has had some impact on the voters, Moses Murry, the head of Nagaland Joint Christian Forum, told NewsClick:  "We are sure sections of voters have heard our appeal; we will continue our efforts. It's a long-term objective; we have to try patiently."

The church leaders who participated in the deliberations made no secret of their discomfort with the RSS-backed Janajati Dharam Sanskriti Suraksha Manch, which has persisted in its demand for delisting of "converted" people among Scheduled Tribes (STs) under Article 342A of the Constitution.

It is on such occasions that BJP leaders harp on "the party is not anti-Christian and against churches, but against those who are anti-India." This is what BJP general secretary Rituraj Sinha told journalists some time ago

The Centre for Policy Studies, in a note on the Religious Data Census of 2011, recorded that the concentration of Christians in the Northeast is next only to the numbers accounted for by the coastal region stretching from southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala to coastal Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. Almost the entire tribal population in Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland embraced Christianity over the years. The role that churches have played in school education has been traced to the British administration’s decision to entrust the responsibility and budget to Christian missions.

Interestingly, even with a much lesser number of seats, BJP has again chosen to join the ministry – in Nagaland as a junior partner of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) of Neiphiu Rio and in Meghalaya as one of the junior partners of National People's Party (NPP) of Conrad Sangma. Since BJP leads the NDA government at the Centre and as the Northeast states are overwhelmingly dependent upon Central funds for their development/welfare schemes, including those through the non-lapsable Central pool of resources, it suits them to be on the side of whichever regime rules New Delhi.

For BJP, despite weak numbers, except in Assam, this has become a political opportunity to spread its influence.

Political watchers of the Northeast political scene contend that New Delhi cannot afford to keep sensitive issues pending indefinitely. One such issue is the extreme backwardness of the eastern part of Nagaland, comprising six districts -- four of which share a border with Myanmar – and are inhabited by seven of the state's total 19 tribes.

The Eastern Naga People's Organisation (ENPO) withdrew its poll boycott decision at the behest of Union home minister Amit Shah, who assured it that backwardness would be addressed after the elections. ENPO first raised the separate Frontier Nagaland demand in 2010.

New Delhi has to proactively resolve the insurgent outfits' demand for a political settlement, on which there has been little progress since 2017. In 2018, the slogan in Nagaland was 'election for solution', and this time round, the slogan raised was 'no solution, no election'. Now that elections have been held, and the same NDPP-BJP combine would be in power, the Centre must resume dialogue to sort out the sticky points, stressed political watchers.

For the record:   For the first time since the creation of Nagaland in 1963, the state Assembly will have two women legislators – Hekani Jakhalu and Salhoutuonuo – who won from Dimapur III and Western Angami constituencies on NDPP tickets. Also, for the first time, Rajya Sabha has a woman representative – S Phangnon Konyak from Nagaland. She heads BJP's Mahila outfit in the state.    

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