April , 2021
To be or not to be: The last quest before the people of Assam
12:32 pm



What would be the last lie a politician ever told? It is perhaps the question that shrouds the minds of voters in Assam. All these years they are searching for answers, for so many questions and they wondered how the politicians let the world believe the same old lies. Listening to the rhetorical speeches was never enough for them. They wanted answers. Now they are probably going to have them as soon as the State’s Assembly elections results are out. The long held answer is actually blowing in the winds. The politicians have pushed the people too far.

The political observers in Assam are almost grossly certain that a number of pre poll socio-political equations would make the post poll situation even more complex. BJP alliance is quite upbeat to form government for the consecutive second term but some major missteps in state’s political mathematics may ruin their chances.

The outcome of the poll could determine the direction of the debate around the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). While there is a view elsewhere that both the CAA and the Supreme Court-mandated exercise of updating the NRC are exclusionary processes, in Assam there is considerable support for the NRC and opposition to the CAA.

That explains why the Congress claims credit for piloting the NRC project while staunchly opposing the CAA since it discriminates on the basis of religion. Even the All India United Democratic Front and its leader Badruddin Ajmal ‘welcomed’ the NRC. Speaking in the Lok Sabha, Ajmal had argued that the NRC would finally put an end to the ‘foreigner’ tag that many Bengali-speaking settlers have to endure in their day-to-day lives.

The issue of illegal immigrants - identified as undocumented migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh who came into the State after March 24, 1971 - has defined the State’s politics for over 40 years now. While the original students’ agitation (1979-1985) led by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) was largely bereft of religious identity and focussed more on cultural and linguistic differences, the movement translated into a more communally sharp politics.

If the Congress and the AIUDF have been charged with “protecting the migrants”, the BJP has taken the debate to a different tangent by comparing the election to a fight between indigenous communities and invaders like the Mughals.

Many intellectuals and experts in Assam, however, argue that it is not one’s faith but the fear of being ‘outnumbered’ that drives the anti-CAA sentiments. It’s this anger and fear against the CAA that gave rise to two new regional parties in the State - the Akhom Jatiya Parishad and the Raijor Dal. This phenomenon is not new to the State where Assamese sub-nationalism defined the agitation of the late 70s and early 1980s. But for the past two decades, it has mostly been bipolar, with the BJP overshadowing earlier regional players like the Asom Gana Parishad.

Voters in 40 constituencies covering 12 districts of Assam cast their votes for the third and final phase of election to the 15th Assam Legislative Assembly. This third and final phase has indeed been very crucial not just for this election, but for the future of Assam and all the indigenous communities living there. As is being discussed all over, a sizable number of these 40 constituencies are inhabited by people whose roots are in erstwhile East Bengal, erstwhile East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh.

Large-scale migration, both legal and illegal, from the above-mentioned places since the beginning of the 20th century has dangerously changed the demography of many of these 12 districts, so much so that the indigenous communities have been reduced to a minority on their own land.

In this connection, every patriotic person irrespective of linguistic, religious and ethnic affiliation should recall what Lt. Gen SK Sinha, a former Vice-Chief of the Indian Army and a former Governor of Assam had stated in his report to the President of India on November 8, 1998. He had stated that the unabated influx of illegal migrants and the consequent perceptible change in the demographic pattern of Assam has been a matter of grave concern.

While influx from the neighbouring country began in the early 20th century, "after independence, it acquired an international dimension and it now poses a grave threat to our national security." As Lt. Gen Sinha had written, when the demand for Pakistan was raised in the 1940s, it was visualised that Pakistan would comprise Muslim-majority provinces in the West and Bang-e-Islam comprising Bengal and Assam.

Jinnah had even declared in Guwahati just a few months before Independence that Assam was in his pocket. But, ‘failure to get Assam included in East Pakistan in 1947 remained a source of resentment in that country, so much so that while Bhutto, in his book 'Myths of Independence' had called Assam a 'dispute' between India and Pakistan equal to that of Kashmir, Lt. Gen Sinha had even referred to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as saying that “Eastern Pakistan must include Assam.”

According to Lt. Gen Sinha, "the dangerous consequences of large-scale illegal migration from Bangladesh, both for the people of Assam and more for the Nation as a whole, need to be emphatically stressed," and that "no misconceived and mistaken notions of secularism should be allowed to come in the way of doing so." 

The former Vice-Chief of the Indian Army had also warned that while influx was so dangerously changing the demography of the border districts of Assam that "it will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh may be made," and that "loss of lower Assam will severe the entire land mass of the North-east from the rest of India." At this crucial time ahead of the third and last phase of the Assam Assembly election, every patriotic and responsible citizen and voter should also read what the Supreme Court of India had said in its historic judgment of July 12, 2005 while striking down the notorious IMDT Act. 

It had also said that Assam was facing ‘external aggression and internal disturbance’ on account of large-scale illegal migration of Bangladeshi nationals. Now, the patriotic people of Assam, including those who had come from other parts of India and made Assam their home, must also keep in mind that while the Supreme Court of India had struck down the notorious IMDT Act of 1983 - it was enacted by the Congress government. Then Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and Hiteswar Saikia was the Chief Minister. It had only helped protect the illegal migrants instead of helping detect them. Badruddin Ajmal had formed the AIUDF immediately thereafter to protect the interests of those people (illegal migrants) who became vulnerable in the absence of the IMDT Act.

Today, while going out to vote, the patriotic people must keep this in mind as to which party is in alliance with which party, as also as to which party was responsible for the influx and which party stands clearly for protecting the interests of the migrants. After all, this election is not about forming a new government, but is also about deciding the future of Assam, her people, her culture and her position as an integral part of this great country. 

The fear of deportation among the Bengali speaking Muslims loom large in Assam. In the recent 2021 Assam Assembly elections, the Muslim voters turned up in very high numbers. The Muslims of Assam account for 35% of the total electorate which is a point of temptation for the political parties of Assam because they usually vote in the chunk as a whole. This year, it has been observed that the fear of being listed as a 'D' voter or doubtful voter, especially amongst the Bengali speaking Muslims has been the driving factor for them coming out to cast their votes in very large numbers. 

Percentage was recorded at 85.20%. This trend can be observed by studying the voter turnout percentages of Muslim and non-Muslim dominated constituencies and comparing them. The 34 Assam Assembly constituencies where Muslims are in majority showed an average of 84% voter turnout whereas, in the remaining 92 constituencies where Muslims are in minority, the voter turnout was only 79%. This shows that the Muslims in Assam are insecure about being identified by the Election commission as doubtful voters and disenfranchised.

However, for the State, the election is likely to have implications beyond who wins and who loses. It could well settle some of the issues that have come to define recent politics in the State. The BJP may be seeking a second term for its first government in the north-eastern State but the party went to the polls without announcing the incumbent Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal as its face for a second term.

It’s an acknowledgement of the importance of Himanta Biswa Sarma - the Minister who holds a number of portfolios, including Finance and Health, and is the face of the party in the northeast though he is number two in Assam. It is also a sign of a possible post-poll scenario if the BJP were to win.

Sarma, who joined the BJP in August 2015 from the Congress, occupied the same position under the late Tarun Gogoi in the Congress government. There was a time when his proximity to Gogoi created not only a wedge between the then Chief Minister and party veterans but also drove many of the old-timers out.

Known to be an efficient Minister and a hard taskmaster, Sarma has been harbouring an ambition for the top post since 2014, when the Congress, after faring poorly in the Lok Sabha polls, had toyed with the idea of replacing the Chief Minister and bringing in young blood.

As a protege of Gogoi, Sarma, who was 45 years old, fit the description; he was counting on senior Congressmen to deliver on their ‘promise’ of promoting him to the top post. But he is said to have hit a wall in Rahul Gandhi and the emergence of Gaurav Gogoi as an articulate Member of Parliament created more stumbling blocks. Now, seven years later and after having proven his utility in the rival party, the current election could define Sarma’s future path.

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