Assam politics, specifically Ahom politics, is at a crossroad. While Assam’s politics typically does not matter in the Indian Union’s ‘national scene’, for people of Assam, it means the world. For the first time in Assam’s political history, a non-Congress Delhi-headquartered party has positioned itself as the primary voice of Assamese Hindus. The BJP wants to follow up its spectacular and unprecedented success in Assam at the 2014 Lok Sabha polls with a bigger prize – becoming the primary ruling party of Assam. If that happens, it will be a political earthquake. The biggest casualty of the rise of the BJP in Assam has been Assamese nationalism (what pro-centre think-tanks refer to as Assamese sub-nationalism) in its electoral form. This election will decide whether Assamese nationalism and the particular type of identity-based pro-federalism politics in the non-tribal areas of Assam will give away to a more general Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan-type Hindu-Muslim politics in Assam.
Defying the decision of its general council, the top leaders of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the principal electoral voice of Assamese nationalism (with “regionalism” and federalism being their signature planks), have allied with the BJP. AGP has been given a measly 24 seats out of 126 – thus underscoring its stock value after years of hemorrhage in their political base. There is a distinct possibility that the BJP-led alliance might win.
However, it seems that to a significant section of the AGP cadre and its more ideologically less-slippery leaders, winning is not everything. The AGP has split on this issue, with the former AGP youth wing president Sunil Rajkonwar leading the new formation AGP (Ancholikotabadi Moncho/Regionalist platform). He points out the incompatibility of AGP ideology with a Hindu-nationalist Delhi-headquartered formation like the BJP – “People supported the AGP because it is a secular regional force and fought for regional interests. But people will not tolerate them joining hands with the communal BJP .” AGP’s veteran ideological stalwarts like Thaneswar Boro have joined the new formation.
AGP has split several times before, but this split has been the most ideologically driven among them. While it is improbable that the AGP(AM) will be able to emerge as a principal pivot in Assam politics at the moment, the orphaned ideological stances that it wants to defend go to the soul of post-Partition Assamese politics and the principles enshrined in the 1985 Assam accord. The accord was the result of the All Assam Students Union (AASU)-led Assam movement which stood for protecting the rights of the ‘sons of the soil’ of Assam (this movement has served as the template of the Bodoland agitation and various other such homeland identity and rights movements in the region).
One one hand, this meant demands for the identification and banishment of illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, irrespective of religion. On the other hand, it sought to develop an Assam-centric politics, including protection of Assamese culture, language, economic and homeland rights. These issues are tied to greater political democratization and hence, devolution of power from the Union centre to the state. This democratizing and decentralizing thrust forms the core of federalist politics in the Indian Union. The AGP was born out of the churning of the Assam movements and was for many years one of the strongest votaries of decentralization and federalism.
On the communal question, AGP’s ideology is diametrically opposed to that of the BJP which considers the Indian Union to the natural host to all persecuted people of Dharmic faiths (Hindus, Buddhists,Sikhs,etc). This is where AGP’s homeland imagination becomes clear – it naturally starts and ends with Assam. The AGP stance has been that if the Government of India insists on hosting persecuted Hindus and Buddhists of Bangladesh, they have to be settled and given political rights in non-Assam India. Thus, Muslim Bengalis of lower Assam and Hindu Bengalis of Barak valley have long been the support base for the Congress, which has ruled Assam for the longest period by forging a broad front of various ethnic minorities along-with a section of the Assamese themselves. In this election, many fear an implosion of the Congress front – with Muslim Bengalis remaining with the Congress and the Hindu Bengalis going with the BJP which has promised illegal immigrants among them a path to citizenship. With the Muslim Bengali being constructed as the biggest threat to Assam, the shift of a significant section of Assamese Hindus to the BJP (many Assam BJP leaders are ex-AASU and AGP leaders) would make the communal polarization complete. Assam will join the “mainstream” via tried and tested Hindu-Muslim politics of South Asia. This is most damaging for the Assamese regionalists, who fear being left without a core constituency.
The situation of Muslim Assamese is particularly tricky, who are faced with an unenviable choice between their faith and ethno-linguistic identity, due to BJP’s aggressive Hinduization of what has long a very composite Assamese identity in the Assamese national imagination. In November last year, BJP MP Yogi Adityanath tried to hinduize Ahom glory by hailing the legendary Ahom general Lachit Borphukan as a Hindu general who defeated Aurrangzeb’s invading ‘Muslim’ army at the Battle of Saraighat. What is deliberately left unsaid is that the invading “Muslim” army was led by Ram Singh I, the ruler of Amber and the elder son of Raja Jai Singh I. Crucial to the Ahom victory at Saraighat was the bravery of top Assamese military officer ‘Bagh Hazarika’ Ismail Siddique, an Assamese Muslim. In fact, in the Assamese historical imagination (including that of the United Liberation Front of Asom -ULFA), both Lachit Barphukan and Ismail Siddique were on the side of Asom and the native Assamese people while Aurangzeb and Ram Singh I represented then what Yogi Adityanath represents now – the forces of Delhi.
The farther one goes from Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan, so-called ‘national parties’ operate less as political parties and more as temporary place-holders for powerful individual-centric client networks. The local brokers give Delhi-headquartered parties a representative aura, thus extending the legitimacy of the deep-state in these areas. In return, the brokers use extracts their fee in the form of access to resources (monetary and otherwise) that are available at the Union centre’s discretion.
The various ethno-linguistic homelands which constitute the Indian Union have always been in various depths of integration with the concept of India. A simple mind-game would demonstrate this. Close your eyes and try to place Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Nagaland in an increasing order of integration with the concept of India. Your particular ordering is unimportant but the fact that this mental exercise can be done at all tells us something. However, depths of integration are not uniform within the constituent ethno-linguistic homelands either. Even there exists a broad spectrum – from total identification and association to complete alienation and separateness. In case of Assam, this spectrum is represented by the AGP and its splinters, AASU, AJYCP, pro-talk ULFA, SULFA, BJP, Congress and other organizations, including those like ULFA(I) which cannot make themselves heard in the official ‘public space’.
What is the destiny of Assam as a homeland, as a society, as a culture, as an identity? Intricately tied to this question is the future of Assamese nationalism. This debate about the destiny of Assam as identity has various stake-holders who represent viewpoints and imaginations of Assam’s future, even an Assamese future. Though the Indian Union provides an over-arching context and has also been understood as the force whose hegemonic Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan thrust is most likely to defeat the particular culture and identity of Assam, this is essentially an internal dialogue within the Assamese people about the soul of Assam.
If people from the land of “Bharatmata ki Jai” were to visit Assam, they would see in every corner, monuments and slogans hailing another territorial mother, Mother Axom. The slogan “Joy Ai Axom” (Ai meaning mother) speaks of a different imagination of mother and motherland. Such proto-national aspirations may be deemed illegal in a super-centralized politico-judicial system that views dissenting diversity as the greatest enemy but they are neither illegitimate nor unreal. The persistence of the political representation vacuum that’s been created by AGP’s alliance with BJP needs resolution through a cross-communal, Assam-first electoral force. But if the political batte-field is so polarized between ‘Bharatmata’ and ‘illegal Bangladeshis’, who will fight for Ai Axom?