On 28 March 2018, the chief ministers of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Gujarat came together to celebrate the marriage of Lord Krishna and Rukmini during the four-day Madhavpur Mela (fair) in Gujarat, a state in western India. Thousands gathered at this mela from all over India, with around 150 cultural troupes from the Northeast as the bride’s representatives to celebrate the “immortal journey” that Rukmini undertook from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat to marry Lord Krishna. The coverage, which was broadcast on television and social media sites, demonstrated color, diversity, and “unity,” with the latter achieved through bringing together the East and West under the Union Ministry of Culture’s slogan “Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat” (One India, Great India).
Many versions of this ancient story abound though it is most popularly told in the ninth-century Bhagavata Purana, a classical source for Krishna devotees. It is a story of Rukmini’s defiance against arranged marriage, “self-invited abduction,” and how Krishna and Rukmini elope together against the wishes of her family (Pauwels 2007, 407). In another earlier version, the Harivamsa Purana, Rukmini is instead a victim of Krishna’s raid (Pauwels 2007, 408). Two sixteenth-century texts about Rukmini, the Rukmini Mangala and Kisan Rukmini ri Veli, provide competing explanations concerning whether it was “abduction” or “elopement” and the role of Rukmini in deciding her own fate.
During the mela in Gujarat in 2018, a new version of the Rukmini story came to light that involved Arunachal Pradesh. The most popular version of the Krishna-Rukmini story is portrayed as being from Maharashtra, in the western part of the country. Therefore, the reactions to connecting Krishna and Rukmini to Arunachal were particularly poignant. Some were incandescent that such a story—that Rukmini was allegedly from the Idu Mishmi community—had found its way into the national headlines. They accused the Sangh of engineering this connection and of “cultural appropriation.” Questions were raised regarding the veracity of the Arunachal version of Krishna and Rukmini as ancient lore and instead point to its recent invention. This is how “a worried citizen” reported it to the Arunachal Times (28 March 2018):
Around the 70s, Christian missionaries started making inroads into Arunachal. To counter it, the Hindu rightwing groups, with the patronage of the then central government, started this theory of Rukmini being Idu. The presence of Parsuram Kund and Bismaknagar, which has a connection with Hindu mythology, near the Idu belt gave further fillip to this story. But there is no historical or scientific evidence to support it. The union government is distorting tribal history by promoting this kind of imaginary story.
Rasto Mena, public relations secretary of the Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society (IMCLS), was more circumspect and argued for rapprochement, primarily as a way to foster national integration. Moji Riba, a notable filmmaker and cultural activist from Arunachal Pradesh, argues that whether the story’s historicity is accurate or not is not the point. Rather, what we are witnessing, he suggests, is the larger process of the “appropriation of folklore” in the service of national integration. One must be alert to the various ways in which folklore and the “objectification of culture” have been pressed into political service. To bring the past to life and to argue for national oneness comprise an old story, which reinvents itself, over and over again.
Whatever the true nature of the story—myth, fabrication, or invention— it brings into focus a larger geopolitical dimension, especially the existential threat of China to the borders of the Indian nation-state. The Arunachal chief minister, Pema Khandu, explicitly addressed this issue during the mela: “We watch in news channels today that some other country is claiming some part of Northeast. But nobody can change the history and the ancient history says that Arunachal was not a separate state but entire Northeast was one. For centuries, we have been with India, mainland India. This is our strength.” The governor of Arunachal Pradesh, B. D. Mishra, echoed Khandu’s refrain.
You are here on the western border of India and we are from the eastern border, 3,500 kilometres away. But this distance has always remained connected. If somebody from the other side of our border claims that Arunachal belongs to them, they are grossly wrong because if our princess could come here 5,000 years ago and you could make her the queen, it clearly means Arunachal has always been with India and will continue to be so.
“For the first time ever,” the BJP culture minister Mahesh Sharma said, “the festival will celebrate the immortal journey which Rukmini undertook from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat with Lord Krishna.” The minister argued that, “The purpose of this integration is to bring various parts of the country especially the Northeast, close to each other . . . announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
In this case, the Northeast represents Rukmini, the bride’s family. N. Biren Singh, the chief minister of Manipur, greets the audience in Madhavpur with this in mind, though from a male gaze:
I have come from the Northeast, China border. I will speak in Northeast Hindi; please bear with me. . . . I want to say that we are from the girl’s side. Give us respect today. Keep us on a pedestal because Lord Krishna abducted our girl [loud cheers from the audience]. We have not come to fight, but a wedding has to happen. Without a wedding, we will not go back.
Biren Singh then goes on to give a geohistorical lesson to the audience. During Krishna’s time, he says, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Manipur were not geopolitical entities, as we know them, but one large landmass that comprises the current Northeast. In fact, he says the westward Gujarat near Pakistan and eastward Northeast near China were traversed by Lord Krishna, creating “Bharat into one Bharat.” This is how he ends his speech:
In between, we didn’t have the chance to meet politically and socially. Today, a godsent person born on the soil of Gujarat, like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has brought Bharat together and made it into one Bharat. He is showing to the world now that the Northeast is part of Bharat. He is working. This kind of opportunity that he is giving to us in the Northeast—we will not let it slip away. We will give our life for one Bharat. We will sacrifice for one Bharat.
These emotional and patriotic remarks by Biren Singh highlight two important aspects of how the Northeast has been viewed. The region has seen numerous nationalist movements that have, to a large extent, questioned the historical and contemporary spatial continuity of what the historian Sunil Khilnani has called “the idea of India.” The fact that the two geographical nodal points—the East and the West—have been united under the leadership of Narendra Modi is celebrated by Singh, however febrile and contested the idea. While Singh’s speech develops the idea of oneness through mythological time, Kiren Rijiju, the state home minister in the BJP government, evokes the temporality of the daily rhythm of eating, sleeping, and waking to juxtapose the vastness, and yet oneness, of India. He says,
We [in Gujarat] have just progressed into the evening while in Arunachal Pradesh people have already had their food and slept. Our sun sets there by five to five thirty p.m. In the villages, people eat, drink, and do whatever they have to do and sleep off by six thirty p.m. Our country is so huge. We can understand this by the fact that a difference of two hours means so many different things in one country. Arunachal Pradesh is in the eastern corner, and we are standing here on the western shores of Gujarat—there is such a huge space between the two places, but today our gathering and coming together here at Madhavpur Ghed Fair shows that we may be geographically distant, but we are one.
Rijiju reminds the audience to think about the geographical spread of India. While the natural rhythms of day and night mark one region from another, it is worth ruminating about, he says, how Lord Krishna traveled from Arunachal Pradesh, married Rukmini, and finally reached Gujarat. Rijiju confesses, “I don’t get sleep thinking about this!” Lord Krishna’s activities, argues Rijiju, question the idea that India as “one country” was created only during colonial times. Instead, “India [has] existed [for] epochs,” marked by this conjugal union. This Krishna-Rukmini connection, suggests Naba Kumar Doley (Assam’s culture minister and another of the attendees at this mela), is a way to counter the isolationism of the region. Even though several political movements have argued for separation, this marriage demonstrates a divine link, according to Doley.
In the Madhavpur Mela, it is interesting how relations are explored through marriage. Marriage, at least in the South Asian context, has a rich history that establishes relations of affinity where concepts such as elopement, abduction, and kinship, including what is considered legitimate or illegitimate, have contextual meanings. How does one make relations through marriage that cement a geohistorical connectedness from time immemorial?
First, the attempt at connecting noncontiguous—indeed distantly separated—geographical locales via the story of Krishna and Rukmini’s conjugal union concerns establishing kinship between two families; the analogy used here is between East and West. It is holographic and complex in the sense that the relation is made regardless of scale: Did Gujarat and Arunachal actually exist in the time of Krishna and Rukmini? Was there such a thing as India? And was the Arunachali Rukmini actually Rukmini? Second, regardless, these relations are made due to the promiscuity of relations. There may not be an actual connection, but once an idea of a relation has been conjured up, one is already trapped in that relation, despite even opposition to it. Third, ideas and persons (national unity, Krishna and Rukmini) are fused in innovative ways that show how (the forming of) relations may be coercive. (After all Rukmini was abducted.) This not only creates relations, but relations give rise to refusal and failure too, such as when Christianity enters the conversation regarding indigenous nationalisms, where a different order of relations is imagined without the Indic provenance. The NNC president too rejected this relation in his plebiscite speech in 1951 when he asks, “What connection is there between the two people?”
Some contrast myth as manufactured stories for instrumental reasons with history as recorded facts, while others argue that this entire Rukmini story is an imposition by the Sangh to make connections with Arunachal. One immediate connection that readers may make is with the historical and mythic reading of the Ramjanmabhumi controversy in Ayodhya that saw the destruction of a mosque in 1992 to build a Hindu temple, supposedly in the spot where the god Ram was born. This is not the place to rehash these arguments but simply to point out, along with historian Neeladri Bhattacharya, that “we cannot counterpose history to myth as truth to falsehood. There are different modes of knowledge, varying ways of understanding the world, ordering one’s life and defining one’s actions. If myths convince people, we must understand why they do so. If fabulous stories circulate and light up the popular imagination, we cannot merely demonstrate the fabulous character of such stories; we must know why they circulate, why they play on popular imagination. (1993, 122)
During my lengthy conversations with different people and groups in Arunachal over this issue, the general feeling was expressed under three main themes. First, the process through which the Rukmini story unfolds—whether fact, fabrication, or rumor—has the potential to become accepted as history within the Idu Mishmi tradition. Anil, an Idu Mishmi academic at the local Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar, told me that he was skeptical of this story because it is absent in their oral tradition. He only remembers hearing these stories in the 1970s in a school run by Bharat Vikas Parishad in his local area of Roing. He even recalls that there were efforts made by the RSS to link an Idu character, Ano Taju, with Krishna. When local shamans started studying Ano, they told the RSS that Ano could not be Krishna. Atege, another Idu Mishmi activist working for the IMCLS, said that although some people object to the story, most in the grassroots have gradually accepted that Rukmini is an Idu princess and that she married Krishna. Although Atege dismisses his village people unfairly as gullible, falling prey to any whiff of authority, these Indic connections that I have already discussed go on to take shape and become established as fact, accepted even by scholars. The key though—which Vijay, a Vivekananda Kendra activist, thinks is central to these stories—is a sense of ownership.
Without simply joining the bandwagon, Vijay was more wary. He pointed out that there are many versions of this story—in Vidarbha (Maharashtra), in Gujarat, and in Arunachal. There is also a mismatch, he tells me, in the archaeological evidence that places the Rukmini story (though largely undetermined and around the tenth century) in Bhismaknagar in Arunachal Pradesh. The Rukmini story, he tells me, is over five thousand years old. But the significance of the power of these stories exceeds these contradictions. Focus on the stories, and “this is how myth becomes history,” Vijay tells me. Second, the larger geopolitical dimension of this story plays a part in giving small communities like the Idu Mishmi social capital, while becoming part of the larger Hindu universe. It may be Hindu absorption of tribal practices, Atege told me, but the important distinction he makes is that it is not “us who are trying to assimilate with the Hindus; it is the Hindus who are trying to assimilate with us.” Unlike Anil, who is doubtful, Atege is more open and accepting of this Hindutva influence. He says:
Thing is that this is a Hindu mythology that Rukmini is an Idu. This is not an Idu story. It is a Hindu/RSS story. Idus are accepting it but they are not imposing it. It is the mainstream Hindus who are imposing it. If this is the case, then there is no problem. Then we can say that after all we are all Indians, and if they are accepting us as a part of them, it is good for nationalism and for the nation.
Although I am unsure about Atege’s exact political leanings, he has attended schools run by Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya (VKV) and is therefore conversant in the language of nationalism. Not many agree with Atege, however, but rather see in these views the larger process of Hindu hegemony. When Rukmini becomes accepted as part of the larger Hindu cosmology, both Anil and Atege imagine how this process might bring about social and political capital. “When I say, ‘Rukmini [from Arunachal] is my sister,’ I gain much more,” emphasizes Atege. The power of relation and the way names inherit linguistic capital are evident in Rukmini’s instant recognition. Finally, in order to strengthen national borders (especially against China), these stories are told to establish kin relations with other parts of India. “There is one Arunachali version of the story,” Atege tells me, “that is trending on Facebook.” Rukmini goes to Dwarka in Gujarat to attend a wedding, where she meets Krishna and falls in love. But because Rukmini is already betrothed to Shishupala by her father, Bhismak, and brother, Rukmo (also Rukmi), the situation is complicated. Krishna ignores these cultural interdicts and defeats both the father and the brother for Rukmini’s hand in marriage. This version, though edited down and simplified, is the commonly accepted traditional narrative. However, in the Arunachali version, the story takes a turn. Atege continues:
At Malinithan [an archaeological site with ruins of Hindu temples] there was a marriage certification authority. So Krishna had to go to Malinithan and get a marriage certificate; otherwise, he couldn’t pass. So Krishna goes to Malinithan and comes across the Modi people. Rukmini starts crying, “None of my family is there to do my Kanyadan [gift of a virgin from father to husband] so how can I go to Mathura [in Uttar Pradesh—believed to be the birthplace of Krishna].” Then, Modi people came and said, “We Modi and Idu are like brothers, so don’t worry. We will go to Gujarat for your Kanyadan!” And that is how they went to Gujarat and those Modi people never came back to Arunachal. Those who stayed there eventually became the Modi people of Gujarat, and hence Narendra Modi! So Narendra Modi has lineage from Milan village [in Arunachal]. This is how things can be created.
The kind of relations envisaged in this narrative suggests kinship between the Modi people of the East and the West. This holographic and complex aspect of relations makes any connection possible, which then slowly becomes “fact.” An internet search about Malinithan or Arunachal Pradesh will turn up stories in Trip Advisor or Wikipedia of Rukmini and Krishna, replicating connections until it becomes naturalized.
The Sangh are aware of the power stories have, especially in societies that privilege orality. No wonder the Krishna-Rukmini story took hold of the national imagination, making vital relations along the way. If we are to view this episode variously as a story and a myth, it is instructive to recall the French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes’s striking remark, in his 1993 classic Mythologies, about how myth economizes our language to a level of simplicity: “It abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences. . . . It organises a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves” . Perhaps Roland Barthes and Razzeko Dele’s views align when Dele thoughtfully reflects on this controversy in the local newspaper in Arunachal Pradesh:
The ongoing phenomenon itself manifests how myths are created and relation forged. This is the way myths spread and new bonding begins. Everything can be related to myth as it appeals to the people in general and makes them feel connected. For instance, the Bnei Menashe (group comprising of Mizo, Kuki and Chin people) believe that they are lost tribe of Israel and many of them have migrated to Israel. Apart from the cultural aspect, the Indian government it seems is building the narrative to counter the Chinese claim over the region. China asserts that most part of Arunachal is Southern Tibet, which again is a crystal clear lie. The concept of “Akhand Bharat”, a united India is to show the world that the whole India is one culturally, integrated since the earliest time.
The act of claiming stories as myths allows the Sangh to connect the region with mythopolitical certainty. Slowly but inevitably these connections are naturalized. The Rukmini story and the way relations are forged is one instance of how the region, brimming with mythology, is reconceived.
This excerpt from Arkotong Longkumer’s The Greater India Experiment: Hindutva and the Northeast has been published with permission from Navayana.