(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu . You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)
Over two elaborate events this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to two linguistic and cultural groups -- Tamils and the Assamese. A strong sense of cultural identity is part of politics in both States, which has in the past even found violent expressions in both. In Assam, the BJP has made deep and sweeping inroads, roping in Himanta Biswa Sarma from the Congress camp. Now Chief Minister, Mr. Sarma was the key architect of the party’s two consecutive Assembly election victories. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP wants to make inroads. Its success in Assam gives the BJP hope that it can do it in Tamil Nadu too. Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu are facing a crisis. The demise of Jayalalithaa pushed the AIADMK into disarray from which it has not recovered, leaving a vacuum in the Opposition space against the ruling DMK.
The BJP wants to reinforce its success in Assam, and is pushing hard for an entry into Tamil Nadu. Over two events, Mr. Modi showed his intent.
On November 19, he addressed a group of Tamils brought to Varanasi by the Union government under a programme titled Tamil Kashi Sangamam (TKS). He highlighted the bond between Kashi and Tamil Nadu, both being ancient centres of culture and civilisation. He said TKS would act as a catalyst to generate the feeling of ‘Ek Bharat Shrestha Bharat’ (One India, Best India), and took the opportunity to honour the ‘aadhinams’ (religious leaders) of Tamil Nadu’s various religious places and monasteries. “This is the responsibility of 130 crore Indians to preserve the legacy of Tamil and enrich it. If we ignore Tamil, we do a great disservice to the nation, and if we keep Tamil confined in restrictions, we will do it great harm,” added Mr. Modi. I want to underline two points that are notable in this very novel scheme that brings 2,500 people from Tamil Nadu for a tour of Varanasi.
First, Mr. Modi is celebrating the autonomous identity of Tamil culture. He is trying to reassure his critics in the State who accuse him of undermining Tamil Nadu’s distinct cultural identity.
Second, he is driving home the point that distinct as it may be, Tamil culture is part of the Sanatana cultural expanse.
How this pitch will be appreciated by Tamils we don’t know yet. But the move certainly blunts criticism regarding the BJP’s uniformity push. We will bring you more reports on the ongoing TKS.
Mr. Modi’s outreach to the Assamese was occasioned by an extravagant event in Delhi organised by Mr. Sarma to commemorate a 16thcentury Ahom army general Lachit Borphukan on his 400th birth anniversary.
“Today, India is not only celebrating breaking away from the shackles of colonialism but also its cultural diversity. We have got this historic opportunity at a time when the country is celebrating Azadi ka Mahotsav,” Mr. Modi said. Borphukan was a commander in the erstwhile Ahom kingdom and is known for his leadership in the 1671 battle of Saraighat that thwarted an attempt by Mughals to capture Assam. The ‘Battle of Saraighat’ was fought on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Guwahati.
Mr. Modi said that Borphukan’s bravery underlines the identity of Assam. “For centuries, attempts were made to tell us that we were only looted and plundered but that is not the case. India’s history is of victory, battle and sacrifice…We all know that there are thousands of stories of resistance, of victory too in our history. India is now correcting these mistakes of the past. This celebration is a reflection of just that.” Speaking at the event a day earlier, Home Minister Amit Shah called upon scholars and students to come forward and research at least 30 kingdoms that ruled any part of India for more than 150 years. “After being defeated by a relatively smaller army of the Ahom rulers in Assam in 1671, the foreign invaders from Delhi could never gather the courage to invade Assam again,” the Minister said.
In recent times, Assamese nationalism has resisted outside influences, primarily the incursion of Bengali language and people into its territory. By retelling the story of Assamese pride in the context of the Mughal expansionism, a familiar Hindutva narrative which sees Mughals as foreign invaders, is being reinforced. It is a restatement of Assamese pride and exceptionalism.
Border disputes within Indian borders
Border disputes between Assam and Meghalaya, and between Karnataka and Maharashtra, are in the news again. On November 22, five villagers from Meghalaya and an Assam forest guard were killed and two others were seriously injured in a firing incident along the boundary between the two States. Assam has several boundary disputes with the States carved out of it — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram. Many of these disputes have their origins in the colonial cartography that overlooked the life patterns of local communities. Traditional hunting, grazing and farming grounds of communities got divided by modern administrative boundaries at many places. Read more in our editorial.
When tribespeople are subjected to the laws of the modern state, it can lead to violence. This week, a Forest Range Officer (FRO) was brutally killed, allegedly by a group of Gutti Koya Adivasis with axes and sickles over a “podu land” issue in Errabodu forest area in Chandrugonda mandal of Telangana’s Bhadradri Kothagudem district.
The BJP Chief Minister of Karnataka and the BJP Deputy CM of Maharashtra are locked in a bitter exchange over Kannada-speaking areas in Maharashtra and Marathi-speaking areas in Karnataka -- an issue that has been festering for several decades.
Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said that no villages in the State would go to Karnataka, but the State “government will fight strongly in the Supreme Court to get Marathi-speaking villages in Karnataka, including Belgaum, Karwar and Nipani.” Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, in a series of tweets, said his party colleague’s dream would never come true. “Our government is committed to protecting our State’s land, water and borders. He said that there was no question of giving up any space in the border districts of Karnataka. “We demand that the Kannada-speaking areas of Maharashtra like Solapur and Akkalkot should join Karnataka.”
Maharashtra claims an area of 2,806 square miles that involved 814 villages, and three urban settlements of Belagavi, Karwar and Nippani, all part of the Mumbai Presidency before independence. It has expressed willingness to transfer predominantly Kannada-speaking 260 villages with a total area of 1,160 square miles in lieu of accepting its demand for 814 villages and three urban settlements, which was turned down by Karnataka. You can read more about it here.
BJP burdened by its own success in Gujarat
I spent a few days in Gujarat, talking to experts, observers, and candidates about the ongoing election campaign in the State. I have a few observations on what makes 2022 different from several elections in the recent past.
“Gujarati sub-nationalism blends well with Hindutva, but the takeover of India’s national politics by two politicians from the State — Mr. Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah — appear to have weakened the potency of the cocktail. The Hindutva takeover of Delhi has fundamentally changed Gujarat’s relations with the national capital. Until 2014, Mr. Modi used to accuse the ‘Delhi Sultanate’ of disparaging the State, and then he became the Prime Minister. Victimhood and exceptionalism used to ferment the combination of regionalism and Hindutva — the self-image that the State thrived on despite the discrimination by Delhi. This time, that narrative is the weakest in the last 25 years…” You can read the full article here.