The Assam poll verdict 2016 is remarkable for more than one reason. It not only allowed BJP to form a government for the first time in Assam but also brought to the forefront some regional questions of national importance. For many old timers it was a nostalgic repeat of the 1985 elections when riding high on Assamese sub-nationalism, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) formed Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and emerged victorious to form a government. This was an outcome of the six years long historic Assam Movement (1979-1985) which saw people from all sections of the society pour out in the streets demanding an end to persistent underdevelopment of the state and a halt to the changing demography of the state owing to unchecked movement of people from other parts of India and the subcontinent.
However the AGP fell short of delivering on its promises. As such the very people voted them out of power as well. The same AGP again found its way to the corridors of power after fifteen long years as an ally of the BJP. This makes revisiting the Assam Movement and the issues it espoused very important. The Assam Movement always claimed a secular credential giving more importance to ethnicity. For the proponents of the Movement the problem was migration and immigration from neighbouring countries and states which led to the minoritization of Assamese people. At that point the people at the receiving end of the angst of the locals were Hindi speakers as well as Bengali speaking people. The religious background of these people was not very relevant.
The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was born in the radical fringes of Assam Movement. They started with an armed struggle for a sovereign state but at the same time tried to be more broad-based than the Assam Movement. As opposed to Axomiyas(Assamese speakers), they appealed to Axombaxi (the inhabitants of Assam). While initially these groups enjoyed the support of many, their blatant use of violence alienated the common Assamese people. The hatred for outsiders, those critical of their stand was such that instances like murder of the Journalist Sanjoy Ghosh, attack on intellectuals like Hiren Gohain, murder of a number of Hindi speaking working class people etc are attributed to ULFA.
But of late this idea of ‘the other’ has undergone a change. BJP, since its 2014 election campaign, has been harping on the need to differentiate between the Muslims of East Bengal origin and the Hindus hailing from that area. The 1971 war between Pakistan and Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) saw massive displacement and a refugee crisis irrespective of religious background. BJP proposed that Hindus fleeing religious persecution in other countries must be accommodated and eventually absorbed as citizens. This was based on a premise that India is a natural homeland of Hindus. On the other hand economic immigrants will be pushed back.
In similar lines, BJP again took up the immigration issue during the state elections campaign and raked up old controversies by saying that bypassing the Assam Accord which made 25thMarch, 1971 as the cut off date, 1951 should be the benchmark and the first electoral rolls should be used as authentic proof of citizenship. This becomes important because partition violence saw large scale displacement all over the country. It was only the Nehru Liaquat pact which paved the way for return of many people who fled. As such their names have been subsequently included in the later electoral rolls. Such a demand also negates the category of ‘Na Axomiya’. These are people of East Bengal origin brought to Assam by British since the later half of 19th century and who have assimilated with the Assamese society. They played a crucial role during the language movements and recorded Assamese as their mother tongue. It was instrumental in ensuring that Assamese as opposed to Bengali was declared as the state language of Assam.
BJP rode to power on its promises of solving the immigration problem. But in doing so, it redrew the battle lines between a khilonjia (an indigenous person) and a bohiragoto (an outsider). BJP’s campaign speeches often named Badaruddin Ajmal as the CM of Bangladeshis. Seen as someone representing the Bengali Muslims, such statements equated Bengali Muslims as Bangladeshis. Regional parties like AGP coming on board will make one wonder if BJP has succeeded in convincing AGP that it is the Bengali Muslim of East Bengal origin who is a threat as opposed to migrants coming from other states or countries like Nepal. When an entire community is regarded as illegal immigrants, the various waves of immigration become irrelevant along with the fact that this very community was systematically ‘settled’ to turn wastelands into revenue generating assets.
This election verdict shows a paradigmatic shift in how Assamese society views the ‘Other’ and it is bound to have long term ramifications. AGP which claims to represent the interest of all indigenous communities of Assam went quiet on the differential treatment of Hindu Bangladeshis. Indigeneity came to be defined by ethnic as well as religious identity. BJP’s permutation and combination led to such a situation where Muslims of East Bengal origin found themselves pitted against all other. In times to come it is to be seen how such narrow formulation of identity overdetermined by religion plays out in a state which has seen many fits of violence on this very issue. And how regional parties grapple with such formulations will go a long way deciding the future politics of the state.