Every Hindu house mounted a saffron flag and welcomed Ram, said a young BJP leader from Amalapuram in Andhra Pradesh, speaking about the pran pratishtha celebrations in his town on January 22. A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member since childhood, he believes that the Ram temple issue gives the Sangh, its affiliate organisations, and the BJP in Andhra Pradesh a much-needed morale boost.
Andhra Pradesh has had a substantial network of Sangh-affiliated organisations for several decades, yet their attempts at saffronisation have proceeded at a strained pace. Amalapuram town in B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema district is one of the few districts where Hindutva has gained ground, according to activists and observers that Frontline spoke to. In 2022, the government announced that the newly reorganised Konaseema district would be named after B.R. Ambedkar. The decision was met with arson and violent protests in Amalapuram. Some activists claimed that the opposition to the renaming was not just because of deep-seated casteism but also because of the involvement of Hindutva groups.
There is an increasing proliferation of Hindutva among the OBCs of this region, according to Y. Rajesh, general secretary, Human Rights Forum (HRF), Andhra Pradesh. “The entry is through religious means.” He explained, “If you are associated with a Sangh Parivar affiliate, they ensure special darshan for you in some temples. Then there are free health camps, social services, and so on. One can witness changes such as the pronounced assertions about Ram Mandir, besides anti-Christian and anti-Dalit sentiments in the erstwhile West and East Godavari districts region.”
Another recent phenomenon among the Sangh Parivar in Andhra Pradesh has been their anti-Christian plank. The success of this is unclear, but social media are filled with content aimed at dog whistling. Misinformation campaigns about forcible conversions and ghar wapsi announcements are common. On the ground, workshops and training are conducted regularly in which protection of Hindu dharma is invoked.
The Sangh’s anti-Christian agenda is anti-Dalit by default. But in Andhra Pradesh, even some people from dominant castes converted to Christianity long ago. Hence, that sentiment is also not a unifying social agenda, said Ajay Gudavarthy, associate professor at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. In Andhra Pradesh, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP have not been able to get a strong entry point, he said.
U.G. Srinivasulu, president of HRF, Andhra Pradesh, said that in some parts of Rayalaseema region (four districts), such as Adoni in Kurnool district, organisations such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad had gained ground over the past decade or so. However, there have not been major communal fights for some time now. As the Rayalaseema region has a higher proportion of Muslims compared with the rest of the State, the anti-Muslim articulations of the Sangh are more common here, especially during Ramzan and Bakrid. Most of the communal incidents and altercations get contained, and cases were filed against both parties, said Srinivasulu. Smaller splinter groups usually mobilise people during festivals like Ganesh utsav, Hanuman Jayanti, and Ram Navami.
Extensive network in tribal-populated districts
The Adivasi-populated districts had an extensive network of Sangh Parivar organisations, nascent in some pockets and well-established in others. Andhra Pradesh has nearly 30 lakh Adivasis, of whom 14 lakh are hill tribes. The entry point for right-wing organisations is through social activities such as distributing essentials, setting up medical camps, organising relief camps during natural calamities, conducting sports programmes for children, tutoring students, and establishing computer training centres. The Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram schools and hostels also play a role in promoting their activities.
Most Adivasi organisers and advocates of indigeneity agree that even though saffronisation has not gained a substantial foothold in their areas, the Sangh Parivar’s footprint in their areas has increased in recent years.
The Sangh Parivar organisations first try to establish commonalities between Adivasi gods and Hindu gods. Then they insist that Hinduism predates all other religions, explained Savara Vykunta, an Adivasi activist from Srikakulam district, speaking to Frontline. In some villages, temples are built even if there are no Hindus living there.
Vykunta, who has been working on social issues for over 15 years, also said that Hindutva influence was gradually creating a social hierarchy that mimicked the caste system. An environment of discrimination has been created against the weaker sections among Adivasis, claiming that they are not educated, not civilised enough, or integrated enough. There is also a gradual increase in discrimination against the mainland Dalits who have settled here. All these have started cropping up in the past ten years.
In recent years, the work of Christians has also grown. Both Hinduism and Christianity were antithetical to Adivasi indigeneity and culture, said Vykunta. But Sangh Parivar organisations were more prevalent, and came to these areas first, he added. The Andhra Pradesh Adivasi Joint Action Committee (JAC) convener, Ramarao Dora, concurred. “All religious organisations, whether Hindu or Christian, are a threat to both Adivasi indigeneity and eventually their constitutional rights,” Dora told Frontline. “The Sangh Parivar and the BJP do not even address us as Adivasis. They call us either Vanavasis or Girijans.”
“Even when we call ourselves an Adivasi JAC, news reports publish it as Girijan JAC,” Dora said, explaining how such terminologies have seeped into the common consciousness.
- A recent phenomenon among the Sangh Parivar in Andhra Pradesh is their anti-Christian plank.
- In Rayalaseema, where Muslims form a larger proportion, anti-Muslim articulations by the Sangh are frequent, particularly during Ramzan and Bakrid.
- The Adivasi assertion for a separate census column poses concern for the Sangh Parivar, potentially placing Adivasis outside the Hindu fold.
The Adivasi assertion for a separate column for them in the Census is prevalent in Andhra Pradesh. It is a cause of concern for the Sangh Parivar as such a move would put Adivasis outside the Hindu fold. Attempts to Hinduise the Adivasis had shown results in a few pockets of Srikakulam, where Adivasis called themselves Hindus, said Vykunta. Even so, social movements and Adivasi organisations represent a pushback against the Sangh Parivar in Andhra Pradesh. In 2020, Dora helped establish a shop with an “Adivasi” signboard, the first of the many such public assertions in Paderu, Alluri Sitharama Raju district.
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The electoral campaigns of all major parties for the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections (2024) are in full swing in Andhra Pradesh. However, the BJP leadership has not yet resolved the coalition challenge of an alliance with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the JanaSena Party (JSP). The BJP’s representation in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly decreased from four MLAs in 2014 to none in 2019, and in the Lok Sabha it went from two MPs in 2014 to none in 2019. However, victories of the past resulted from a coalition with the TDP and the JSP.
Gudavarthy said that apart from a social agenda, the second method of entry for the BJP was bending the regional parties. However, the tragedy in Andhra Pradesh was that despite lacking in electoral victories, the BJP had made all regional parties (TDP, YSRCP, and JSP) vulnerable. There is no opposition to the BJP in the State. Whether it is because of the GST issue or the fear of the Enforcement Directorate, that is where Andhra Pradesh stands. This needs to be challenged and resisted.