First published on Sabrang India
Assam enters into polls on April 4, 2016. Unlike previous elections, this time the state has caught some significant attention of the ‘nation’. The ‘nation’ is watching. The competition and stakes are high. The incumbent Congress is contending against a rising power in Assam and its long time contender in national electoral politics, the Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP. BJP’s aggressive drive to expand its mata-led nation building project, riding upon the back of a cow, is in eager and impatient wait to sweep a vast portion of electoral gains in Assam. This gain would establish its crucial presence not only in Assam but also in the rest of the states in the north-eastern region.
This election, with the national parties fighting for supremacy, can be read as symptomatic of a significant step towards the nationalisation of regional politics, and remarkably so given the marginal status ‘enjoyed’ by the blob of geography known as the north-east of India, which for long has been perceived by mainland India as a habitat of insurgents, secessionists and anti-nationals.
The spectacular performance of BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections where it wrestled 7 out of 14 seats in Assam, promised a rise in its reach beyond mainland India. After all, in a state where it has no organisational grass root presence, the BJP’s performance was unprecedented.
Almost as a boon to the BJP, immediately after the 2014 elections the discontentment within the Congress began to manifest itself out in the open. Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was one of the pillars of the Congress government for 14 long years, joined the BJP along with 12 other rebel Congress MLAs. Sarma’s rebellion against the Tarun Gogoi led Congress government was a smartly carried out performance to gain public support even in an act of defection, as he smoothly went on to the side of a new contender in the political field of Assam. To keen observers of Assam politics, Sarma’s defection to BJP did not come as a surprise as he had already started flexing his muscles before the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. In fact many in the Congress party went to the extent of accusing Sarma of implicitly aiding the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls.
I. Barring the ‘Illegal Immigrant’ from Economic Activity, a Fascist Agenda
In this Election BJP seeks to form the government and has, in a show of strategic political wisdom, drawn alliances with some of the smaller parties of Assam, namely the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and the Tiwa and Rabha organizations. Its alliance with the first two does not come as a surprise at least for following reasons – a) in the first case, both the BJP and the AGP identify ‘Illegal Infiltration’ as being the core of the Assam’s problem, b) in 2012, the killings and displacement of a specific section of the population in Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) areas are reflective of the think-alike position of clearing the ‘excesses’ upheld by both the BJP and BPF.
While releasing the Vision document on March 25, 2016, the Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, flanked by Himanta Biswa Sarma and Chief Ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal, announced that “Our priority is the illegal infiltration and detection and deportation of these infiltrators”. This is one of the most sensitive issues that has kept Assam burning for decades.[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]For instance, the Bodos did not purchase anything from Bengali speaking Muslim vendors in Kokrajhar district for some time after the 2012 riots. Posters were put across the district announcing that whoever indulges in economic transactions with “illegal Bangladeshis” would be levied a fine of Rs. 10,000.[/pullquote]
The vision document boldly announced the promise of a “law to be enacted to “deal sternly” with industries, businesses, small and medium enterprises or any other agencies employing infiltrators.” It needs to be pointed out here that this idea of economic boycott of “illegal Bangladeshis” is not the brainchild of just the BJP think-tank; it has been very much a part of the public discourse in Assam for over three decades dating back to the Assam movement (1979 – 1985). In fact, deployment of economic boycott has been unofficially attempted in several cases. For instance, the Bodos did not purchase anything from Bengali speaking Muslim vendors in Kokrajhar district for some time after the 2012 riots. Posters were put across the district announcing that whoever indulges in economic transactions with “illegal Bangladeshis” would be levied a fine of Rs. 10,000.
The xenophobic language, tone and the barely-veiled threat of incitement to violence of this electoral promise sounds as close to fascist propaganda as it can get in contemporary India, because for the first time a political party has promised to turn this widely held idea into a law if it wins the election.
II. Ghar Vapsi, Beef Eating win no brownie points in the campaign
The spectacular success of the BJP in Assam during the Lok Sabha polls of 2014 owed much more to the anti-incumbency fatigue of people with 14 long years of Congress rule rather than any positive presence of the BJP. The latter’s success was not, and is still not commensurate to its organisational presence in the state. In any case, the spectacular success created a room for strengthening organisational presence and greater possibility of success for the BJP in this Assembly election.
Over the last two years BJP has been seen trying to consolidate its Lok Sabha success into a widespread acceptance of itself in Assam as a political force, and it has attempted to project itself as the upholder of Axomiya jatiyotabaad (Axomiya nationalism) [We use the term Axomiya as an ethno-linguistic category comprising of non-tribal Axomiya speaking caste-Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs in Assam; we use the term Assamese to connote all denizens of the state of Assam.] [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Campaigns like “Ghar Wapsi” or “Love Jihad” didn’t find any resonance in Assam. So it tried to rally around the differentiation of “Illegal Bangladeshis” into Hindus and Muslims, the former to be assimilated into the Assamese – Indian fold and the latter to be detected and deported[/pullquote]
It wasn’t unexpected that the issue of “illegal Bangladeshi” became the cornerstone of BJP’s poll agenda in Assam: an issue that has been at the heart of Axomiya jatiyotabaadi politics. However, it didn’t happen without testing the political waters on a few other issues largely derived from the conventional organisational programme that it deploys in various parts of India where communalism is an easy seed bed for escalating conflicts and violence.
Campaigns like “Ghar Wapsi” or “Love Jihad” didn’t find any resonance in Assam. So it tried to rally around the differentiation of “Illegal Bangladeshis” into Hindus and Muslims, the former to be assimilated into the Assamese – Indian fold and the latter to be detected and deported. In the first week of September 2015, the Union government sent a notification to Assam government announcing its decision to allow Hindu Bangladeshis in Assam who sought shelter before December 31, 2014 to continue living in Assam. The Union government’s justification for this benevolent exception was “due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution” in their country of origin. The announcement didn’t go down well in Assam as it was seen to be in contradiction with the core principles of the Assam Accord of 1985, and large scale protests erupted across the state spearheaded by jatiyotabaadi organizations like All Assam Students Union (AASU) and Axom Jatiyotabaadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) .
Subsequently, it tried to bring beef on the menu card – an issue which so significantly determined the trajectory of the recent Bihar Elections to the detriment of BJP’s poll ambitions. Amidst an ethnically diverse state like Assam where beef is eaten not only by the Muslims who constitute 34 % of the total population but also by a substantial section of the tribal groups as well as the Cha Janajaati (Tea Tribes), beef could not establish BJP’s much desired diet plans.
However beef did turn handy in another way, even if it appeared to be a leaf out of Bhisham Sahni’s famous novel Tamas: a new trend (at least in Assam) of throwing beef chunks and cow heads in mostly Kali temples has emerged in past one year. According to local (both social and conventional) media in Assam, there have been at least 22 reported cases of “beef-found-in-temples” since 2015.
However owing to the specific history of being largely secular, throughout Assam where these incidents occurred, the reactions of the public were quite different. Where the presence of Bengali Hindus were significant, communal tensions appeared volatile, unlike in Axomiya dominated areas where such incidents did not become an issue of any significant attention.
III. Project to Dis-enfrancise the entire community of Muslims of East Bengal Descent
BJP’s forceful thrust on detection, deportation and economic boycott of “Illegal Muslim Bangladeshis” cannot be misread – it is not just about Illegal Bangladeshis. It is an attempt towards disenfranchising an entire community of Muslims of East Bengali descent, irrespective of when their ancestors migrated to Assam from erstwhile East Bengal. In this respect a recent interview given to a national daily by Sarbananda Sonowal is telling where he doesn’t mince words:
The assertion that only those Muslims who have been living in Assam for 800 years are genuine Axomiya Muslims is a cunning deployed to drive home the point that the East Bengali Muslim peasants who migrated to Assam from 1890s onwards and their progenies are not legitimate residents of Assam. It might be worth mentioning here that only between 1901 and 1941, a little over10 lakh East Bengali Muslim peasants settled in Assam.
This assertion, again, is not the original brain child of BJP. It has very much been a part of the consciousness of the present generation of Axomiyas. Despite huge historical complexities involved in differentiating an “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant” from a Muslim citizen of East Bengali descent, to the young urban Axomiya any Bengali Muslim is a Bangladeshi. However the question arises as to how does one identify an “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant”? What are the ways of telling the difference? It is most certainly not difference but the similarities between an “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant” and a Muslim citizen of East Bengali descent which supplies the paraphernalia for slotting people of both the categories in a single category of the “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant”; it is physical and cultural markers, religion and language.
IV. Assamese Exceptionalism could open doors for the BJP
The rise of Sonowal from an Axomiya Jatiya Nayak (Amoxiya National Hero), as hailed by AASU, to becoming an important leader of the AGP and then finally the State President of the Assam BJP and its Chief Ministerial candidate for 2016 elections has been based on the anti-“illegal Bangladeshi” cause.
Both AASU and AGP, even today, vouch by the Assam Accord of 1985 which sets the cut-off date for detection and deportation of Bangladeshis from Assam as 26th March 1971, whereas the current BJP posture of Sonowal supercedes the provisions of the Accord to make a sweeping identification and marking of “illegal Bangladeshis” irrespective of the important dates and deadlines laid down in the Accord and giving it a communal edge.
It was also on the basis of the Assam Accord that the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955 was amended in 1986. Through this amendment, Article 6A was inserted to retrospectively grant citizenship to those who migrated from East Pakistan to Assam before 1st January 1966, and those who came on or after 1st January 1966 but before 26th March 1971 would enjoy all rights as citizenship except voting rights for 10 years.[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]BJP’s forceful thrust on detection, deportation and economic boycott of “Illegal Muslim Bangladeshis” cannot be misread – it is not just about Illegal Bangladeshis. It is an attempt towards disenfranchising an entire community of Muslims of East Bengali descent, irrespective of when their ancestors migrated to Assam from erstwhile East Bengal.[/pullquote]
Sonowal is the Jatiyotabaadi face of BJP in this election. For past six months, in his interviews and speeches Sonowal has been strongly putting forth the BJP magic card of development as one of the main agendas of the polls. It, however, comes with an important rider – this is development for the genuine people of the greater Assamese society, which according to him and Assam BJP, apart from the Axomiyas (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians) and various tribes, includes Bengalis (read Hindu Bengalis), Marwaris, Punjabis and Nepalis. Sonowal and his party have also been harping that once elected their government will pay special attention to genuine Axomiya Muslims who have been “outmaneuvered by Muslim migrants”.
A substantial section of Axomiya Muslims have taken BJP’s bait. Out of three lakh Axomiya Muslim members of BJP, two lakh seventy thousand have joined the party in past one year. BJP’s election thrust of rooting out “illegal Bangladeshis” from Assam goes down well with this section of the population. Axomiya Muslims and Muslims of East Bengali descent might share the same religion but cultural difference, real or perceived, has always pitted the two communities against each other.
The anti Bengali Muslim sentiment among Axomiya Muslims is as pervasive as it is among the caste-Hindu Axomiyas and many other communities like the Bodos. In fact organisations claiming to represent Axomiya Muslims like the Federation of Indigenous Muslim Organisations of Assam (FIMOA), All Assam Goriya Moriya Desi Jatiyo Parishad, Axomiya Muslim Kalyan Parishad, All Assam Goriya Yuva Parishad have long been demanding special development package for the community and have long asserted that they not be equated with Bengali Muslims just because of a shared religion. These organisations have also been a vocal critic of Badaruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIDUF) (which is perceived by Axomiyas to be a party exclusively of Muslims of East Bengali descent) and on several occasions accused Ajmal and his party of protecting illegal Bangladeshis, condemning him of trying to foment religious communal divide in an otherwise “secular and tolerant society”.
An important question arises here: what explains the fact that BJP and its Hindutva fascist politics doesn’t make a substantial section of Assamese society wary? There seem to be two plausible explanations.
Firstly, in Assam there exists a very strong sense of Assamese exceptionalism, that the Assamese are inherently tolerant, easy-going, secular and peaceful people. This sense of exceptionalism is pervasive among not just the Axomiyas but also among various tribes. A common refrain that can be very frequently heard is that “Assam is different. BJP can do a Gujarat or a Muzzafarnagar in other parts of India, but here in Assam BJP cannot and will not foment riots against Axomiya Muslims in Assam”. Another refrain that is often heard is that “Assam has never witnessed any violent conflict between Axomiya Muslims and Hindus”. It is a fact that there has been no history of violent conflict between Axomiya Muslims and Hindus; not even in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid, except for one small flare-up. However, this history will not stand as a guarantee that if BJP wins this election it will not turn Assam into a Hindutva laboratory in the garb of rooting out “illegal Bangladeshis”.
A good illustration of this confidence in the sense of exceptionalism is the curious case of the dynamic peasant leader Akhil Gogoi who leads the largest left-leaning social movement under the banner of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samati (KMSS). KMSS has also been the de-facto opposition to the Congress government for the past one decade albeit outside the legislative assembly.[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Amidst an ethnically diverse state like Assam where beef is eaten not only by the Muslims who constitute 34 % of the total population but also by a substantial section of the tribal groups as well as the Cha Janajaati (Tea Tribes), beef could not establish BJP’s much desired diet plans.[/pullquote]
Though Akhil Gogoi and KMSS are now at the forefront of the fight against what he calls BJP’s Hindutva fascism, during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections the need to defeat the Congress took precedence and Akhil Gogoi released a list of ‘who to vote for’, for his supporters and he also appealed to the people of Assam to consider his list. The list comprised of one CPM candidate, one CPI-ML candidate, three AGP candidates, two AIUDF candidates and 7 BJP candidates. This political blunder on part of Akhil Gogoi stems precisely from this flawed sense of Assamese exceptionalism.
On the contrary, one of the composite features of this exceptionalism has created a public sphere that denounces any regressive general communal slogans and statements; any overarching anti-religious minority statement made in Assam is met with hostilities and protests by people in general, including the jatiyotabaadi groups. One of the reasons for such political behavior could be because Axomiya religious minorities have had equal investment in the jatiyotabaadi project. Assam BJP is cognizant of this fact and has played it to its own advantage. To give a recent example, in 2015 Subramanian Swamy gave a statement in Guwahati that Mosques are merely a place of religious congregation and hence can be demolished. Theologically speaking Swamy might have been right, but the statement didn’t go down well in Assam. Effigies were burnt and protests were organized by various groups of people including the jatiyotabaadis; even Assam BJP condemned and distanced itself from Swamy’s statement.
V. ‘Genuine Assamese Muslims’ allies of the BJP in Assam?
The 2016 Assam election is a litmus test for the non-communal population of Assam to withstand the rightwing agenda of bringing religion and religious identity to the fore; it simply does not require another reason to burn. The ‘genuine Assamese Muslims’, however genuinely anxious they may be, are in the danger of allying and becoming complicit in the spread of a politics and ideology whose history talks more than loudly its destructive, divisive will. The BJP’s utilisation of the religious separation is derived from a specific Hindutva project unlike the sons-of-the-soil who have strongly and for long basked in the idea of Assamese exceptionalism. The exceptionalism may be present, may have been there, but times have changed.
It is crucial to recognize that BJP’s focus on Assam latches on to the most convenient and available issue of illegal Bangladeshis immigrants. Initially, as we have noted earlier, BJP tried to play its classic Hindu-Muslim segregation of the “illegal Bangladeshis”, although unsuccessfully.
The Bangladeshi problem in Assam does not fit into the mainstream Hindu rightwing understanding along the lines of religious identities and binaries, though it will be fallacious to say that such an element is not present in the ‘Assamese’ understanding.
With the twin combination of ignorance (about Assam and northeast) and desire ( to bring the northeast into its nation building project), the BJP is trying to create something of an optical illusion, especially to the people of Assam – the image of a flexible national party with concerns for the regional specificities, willing to go soft accordingly on hard core communal agenda which it deploys in other parts of the country, and take a hard line position on the main issue of Assam, pitting themselves against the ‘protectors’ of ‘illegal Bangladeshis”- AIDUF and the Congress. If not beef, Bangladeshi will do – B for BJP.