Assam Election Results 2016 – Challenges to Pluralist Ethos: Ram Puniyani
June 30, 2016
This time around (2016 Elections) BJP has managed to come to power in Assam, though as a coalition with its allies. Its vote share this time came down to 29.5% from the earlier 36.5% (2014); still because of the strategically stitched alliances it beat the Congress in the number of seats won. BJP election appeal was centered on the divisive issue of Bangaldeshi immigrants. It took care to regard 3% native Muslims on the ground of ‘Native Assamese identity’ while the Bengali Muslims (32%) were singled out as immigrants; outsiders. The Bengali immigrant Hindus were projected as refugees. BJP’s propaganda was on the lines of Hindus versus Muslims. Cleverly it was presented as natives versus outsiders.
Taking recourse to communal historiography the election was presented as the second battle of Saraighat, where Lachit Burfukan had defeated the Mughal army in 1671. As such the many commanders and soldiers of Lachit were Muslims also like Bagh Hazarika. Mughal army had many Hindu generals and soldiers. By spinning the tale directed against Mughals projected in the form of Badruddin Ajmal, who was the main target as he was presented as a symbol of Bengali Muslims. At electoral level the Muslims votes got split between Congress and Ajmal’s party. Now the new Government is planning to identify the Bangaldeshi immigrants and throw them out. As such Assam has been witnessing the harassment of Muslims and many of them have been denied voting right putting them in D Votercategory (D for doubtful).
The immigration has been presented in the communal colors in Assam. Essentially the problem is due to pressures related to jobs and other livelihood issues. In the decade of 1980s parochial forces gave the slogan ‘Assam for Assamese’ quite on the line of Maharashtra for Marathis by the sectarian Shiv Sena in Mumbai. The first major catastrophe in this occurred in the 1980s, when the All Assam Students Union (AASU) demanded exclusion of Bangladeshi immigrants from the electoral rolls. In 1983, over 3,000 people were killed in Nellie, near Guwahati. Those killed were Muslims, dubbed as illegal migrants and occupants of land that belonged to Lalung tribe. Tribhuban Das Tiwary Commission was constituted into the Nellie massacre, but the AASU, now Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), after coming to power dropped all the criminal cases against the culprits and the report of the Commission was never made public. A decade later there were another series of violence, the victims of which are still living in relief camps.
At another level agitation of Bodo’s led to creation of Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), giving most powers to Bodos in the four districts, Khokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalgiri; three of which have undergone the massive violence in July 2012. This violence was preceded by a rumor that people from Bangladesh have brought in a huge cache of armaments. This rumor soon triggered into violence that left lakhs people displaced and some killings.
The claim that Bodos are majority and need to preserve their ethnic identity and interests in the area, does not hold any water since the estimate of percentage of Bodos in this area varies from 22 to 29% only. With full powers given to them under this council they have marginalized other sections of society very badly. The other point of view is that despite the formation of Bodo Territorial Council, the Bodos did not surrender their arms, which was one of the conditions for accepting the demand of this regional council.
Bengali Immigration: History
The study of population statistics will make it clear that the beginning of coming of Bengalis speaking Muslims in Assam was due to the policy of British in early part of 20th Century. There is a long history of Bengali speaking Muslims in Assam. For example there were close to five lakh Muslims in Assam in 1931. In the beginning Bengal was the very populous and politically most aware area. Assam at that time was sparsely populated. British undertook a ‘Human Plantation policy’ in the beginning of twentieth century. The basic idea of British policy was three fold. One was to ensure the shifting of people from the overpopulated Bengal to Assam. Two, it aimed to reduce the incidence of famine and unrest in Bengal, and three British wanted to habitat Assam and collect revenue from that area.
Irrespective of the propaganda about Bangla Deshi infiltrators, research based on population statistics of last century shows that Muslims in the region are settlers from pre partition Bengal to begin with. Later there was some migration at the time of partition in 1947 and still later in the after math of 1971 war with Pakistan, leading to formation of Bangla Desh. Nilim Duttain ‘Myth of Bangla Deshi and Violence in Assam’ shows that the migration has taken place over a period of time and the increase of population stops after 1971.
The Assam accord of 1985 granted citizenship rights to all these who had settled in Assam till 1971. This accord recognizes all those living in this area as the legal settlers and so most of the Muslims fall in that category. Not to deny that that some small number of illegal immigrants, the ones’ forced to migrate for economic reasons may also be there.
Despite these facts, the issue has become a big fodder for communal politics, which keeps harping on ‘Bangal Deshi infiltrators’. They go on with the propaganda that ‘Hindu migrants from Bangla Desh are refugees while the Muslims are infiltrators’. Even the 2012 violence was labeled by communal forces as strife between Bodos (Nationalists) and Muslims (foreigners!). The plight of the Muslims who speak Bengali is pathetic as not only that they are marginalized and looked down upon, many of them do not even have the voting rights and some of them are put in the category of D voters. There is an active hate industry blaming that the ruling party is encouraging infiltration for the sake of votes while in reality the economic migrations which are associated with the regional disparities has also come down heavily with Bangla Desh economy looking up in last few decades.
The political Challenges
During last Lok Sabha elections (2014) BJP won seven (out of 14) MP seats from Assam. Though the present victory of BJP is not due to its vote share, still it has brought the BJP government in power and giving it further opportunity to strengthen the work of RSS combine in the state. RSS has been very active in the state and has started Ekal schools (nearly four thousand); Sarswati Shishu Mandirs (590), nearly 100 students Hostels, there are nearly 12000 RSS shakhas in Assam. It is these thousands of volunteers who campaign during elections for the victory of BJP. Through Seva Bharati it is running health services in villages.
All in all the challenge for democratic forces will increase tremendously as these RSS run organizations now will have more influence due to the direct state patronage. The RSS indoctrinated teachers and volunteers will be spreading their sectarian ideology in a stronger way. Already there is plan to open RSS run schools in most of the areas.
The Bihar experiment of Mahagathbandhan (Grand alliance) did tell us that it is possible to halt the march of communal forces if the political elements believing in pluralism and democracy come together. At another level the social and cultural work to promote the values of pluralism and amity are the need of the hour. The major acts of violence have been precipitated on the issue of Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants. As these Muslims have a long lineage in India they need to be given due justice as citizens of India. The process of identification and exiling them lead to great harassment to many Bengali speaking Muslims. The plan of RSS-BJP to identify and exile them needs to be opposed. The role of BJP has been putting pressure to target them to create social divides. Social groups have to take the challenge of communal politics at multiple levels, not just on electoral grounds.