ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Cultural Positioning of Tribes in North-east India

Mapping the Evolving Heraka Identity

While the vast majority of Naga tribes converted to Christianity, the Zeliangrong people follow an indigenous religion known as the Heraka that was formed out of a movement to reform their traditional religion. Since many of the practices of the Heraka are derived from Hinduism, the Sangh parivar has declared them to be vanvasi (forest-dwellers) and sought to assimilate them into the Hindu fold. This article examines the close association of RSS and the Heraka's followers, their convergence and difference, and more particularly, the impact on the cultural positioning of the Heraka. It also examines the construction of the Heraka identity along the distinct lines of Hindus and Christians.

Despite the fact that the Indian nation state is publicised as one carrying a long and rich civilisational heritage, it is largely a product of a 19th century Indian response to British colonialism (Baruah 2009: 177). How­ever, while India’s modern, educated, urban elite – whose intellectual horizons were extended by modern ideas and whose sphere of action was expanded by modern agencies – thought it was possible to unite India in a single political community (Khilnani 2004: 5), the concept of Hinduism as a force unifying religious tradition and the distinctiveness of Hindu culture as a bounded category was fashioned from the 17th century onwards due to interventions by colonial administrators, travellers, scholars and missionaries in the Indian subcontinent. The modern notion of Hindu nationalism began with V D Savarkar in his book Who Is a Hindu? that provided the ideo­logy for the establishment of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925 by K B Hedgewar. The RSS is a cultural organisation that believes in cultural ­nationalism1 and espouses the Hindu identity and cultural heritage, which in turn has political ramifications.

The argument enunciated by G S Ghurye and aggressively advocated by the RSS and its affiliates to describe tribal communities as Hindus has had unprecedented consequences for tribes in India (Xaxa 2005: 1364), leading to difficulties in understanding tribes as distinct and authentic groups. Certainly, there are both similarities and differences in the religious practices of Hindus and the tribes, but the protagonists of Hindutva have conveniently overlooked the differences between them. In colonial literature, though the tribes were no doubt characterised by their distinctive religions, they were also seen in conjunction with other dimensions, especially their isolation from the larger society.

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