Operating in the Fault Lines

In Assam, the Sangh is slowly co-opting tribal identities into the Hindu fold

A rally demanding the delisting of converted members of the Scheduled Tribes from the ST list, in Tripura’s capital Agartala, on 26 December 2023. The rally was organised by the Janajati Suraksha Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. ANI
31 January, 2024

On 24 December 2023, a little-known organisation, the Janajati Suraksha Manch, held a rally in Jharkhand’s Ranchi, demanding the delisting of converted tribals from the Scheduled Tribes list. Two days later, it held another rally in Tripura’s Agartala, with the same demand. The rally, originally scheduled for Christmas, had been deferred after Tripura’s chief minister, Manik Saha, intervened. Earlier in the year, the Janajati Dharma Sanskriti Suraksha Manch, a faction of the JSM in Assam, had held a protest in Guwahati, asking for a ban on religious conversions along with the delisting. Some of their rallies attracted thousands from the tribal community, as per media reports.

A recent and, till now, relatively obscure organisation—it does not have a website but a Facebook page exists—the JSM is backed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and is an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Its convenor, Ganesh Ram Bhagat, was a minister in the Raman Singh-led Chhattisgarh cabinet from 2003 to 2008. The JSM’s co-convenor, Raj Kishore Handsa, is a full-time worker of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the Sangh’s tribal wing. Binod Kumbang, the chief of the JDSSM, told me that the JSM was formed in 2006 with the explicit goal of saving “the original identities of the ST people of India” by ensuring that reservations are not extended to those who have converted to, what he calls, “foreign” religions. In a selective misreading of the Constitution, the JSM demands parity for STs with the Scheduled Castes vis-a-vis the provisions for reservations. At Ranchi, Bhagat said that “Adivasis … are actually Hindus.” The JSM has scaled up its activities over the past few years, with several rallies and public meetings in the tribal and Adivasi-dominated districts of central and northeast India.

In all the noise and rhetoric created by the JSM and the JDSSM, one thing is clear—they serve the Sangh’s Hindu Rashtra project and its nuanced agenda for the northeastern states. For decades, activists of the Sangh and its various affiliates in the region have made consistent attempts to appropriate tribal belief systems into the Hindu fold and to oppose conversion into other religious communities. While the demand for delisting of converted tribals goes back to the 1960s, the JSM has been at the vanguard of reviving the issue over the past few years. Their rallies and campaigns have gained ground in the region, especially Assam. According to a report in the Indian Express, “The JSM’s efforts run parallelly with the RSS-linked Dharma Jagran Samiti’s ‘ghar wapsi (homecoming) rituals’ for converted tribals in Chhattisgarh, the Social Justice Forum’s rallying against corporations allegedly funding conversions in Arunachal Pradesh.”

The fundamental goal behind such initiatives, each modified according to local mores, is to redefine the identity of tribal communities on religious lines. This serves the larger majoritarian agenda of the RSS to establish Hinduism as an “indigenous” religion while highlighting Christianity, and others, as “foreign.” It is geared towards two clear outcomes—the identification of tribals, who follow several animistic belief systems, as Hindus; and the attempt to establish religion as a parameter for the definition of ST status.