Army Chief General Bipin Rawat, speaking at a conference on Northeast made a few statements which did not go down well with many. At the conference “ North East Region of India—Bridging Gaps and Securing Borders” held in New Delhi’s DRDO Bhavan, the Army Chief commented that the region is bound to see migration which is being accentuated by India’s northern and western neighbours to destabilize the region and carry on a proxy war. And this is reflected in the growth of a party like All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) which grew much faster compared to parties like BJP and which allegedly enjoys the support of ‘illegal’ immigrants.
This statement led to diverse reactions from across the political spectrum. While the Army stood by its Chief and said there was nothing communal and political about the statement, Badruddin Ajmal, the Chief of AIUDF and a sitting MP, took to Twitter to criticize this statement. Commenting that Army officials should not make political statements, Ajmal also pointed out that their party rose to power on the support of genuine Indians and because of misgovernance of big parties. He further said his party will request President Ram Nath Kovind, the Supreme Commander of India’s Armed Force to look into the statement.
Ex Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, while addressing a press meet demanded that an Enquiry Committee be formed to look into the claims made by Army Chief of planned immigration from Bangladesh backed by Pakistan and China. These are sensitive claims and involve the nation’s security. He further suggested that a law be made barring any kind of political participation of Army officials for five years post retirement. With the army Chief’s statement, it has become crucial to look back at the growth of AIUDF and where it stands in Assam’s politics today.
AIUDF emerged as a feasible alternative for Muslims after the IM(DT) Act was scrapped by Supreme Court in 2005 during Congress rule. While the party did not claim to solely represent Muslims and also put up many non-Muslim candidates in different elections, it has often taken up issues related to the condition of Muslims like the persecution of Bengali Muslims, the D voter issue, illegal immigration etc. The party was also very vocal during the 2012 BTAD clash. While Muslims have voted strategically for Congress for security, a majority of Muslims shifted their allegiance to this new political formation. This explains the rise and gradual political ascent of AIUDF. The party won 10 seats in its maiden Assembly election in 2006 which went up to 18 in 2011.
However the latest Assam Assembly elections marked a beginning of decline of AIUDF. The AIUDF Supremo Badruddin Azmal who was hoping to play a kingmaker and be a crucial part of the new government saw BJP and its allies form a government on their own. While BJP stitched an alliance with the local regional and ethnic political parties, Congress did not ally with AIUDF as it would have led to further religious polarisaton. Badruddin Ajmal, the MP of Dhubri, fought from South Salmara constituent assembly and tasted personal defeat for the first time. He lost to Congress’s Wazed Ali Choudhury. While the constituency was being represented by his son, he decided to contest himself. However he lost by a margin of 16723 votes.
AIUDF’s total count of seats came down from 18 to 13 and in Dhubri district they could retain only four out of seven seats while the BJP bagged two (Golakganj and East Bilasipara). AIUDF however did well in the Barak valley. It won all three seats in Hailakandi. Six times Congress MLA and ex Minister Gautam Roy lost from Katlichhera and his son Rahul Roy lost from Algapur. This was also due to an anti-Congress wave in Hailakandi and South Karimganj where the party’s candidates were facing allegations of corruption.
Ajmal’s call to Muslims to unite and vote for one party alarmed many Muslims of East Bengal origin whose forefathers have come to Assam much before partition and who don’t want to be clubbed with “Bangladeshis”. After ten long years, people were not very convinced by the promises of AIUDF. Launched in the backdrop of the scrapping of IM(DT) Act, the Bengali origin Muslims have hoped that this new party will ensure that they are not harassed as D-voters or illegal immigrants. The people of Dhubri district also hoped to see an end to yearly problems of floods and river erosion. A failure on delivering these promises and a continuous deprivation of the people led to many questioning the principles that AIUDF claimed to espouse. The distribution of tickets to his brother and sons have also left many AIUDF leaders and voters disillusioned. Leaders like Sherman Ali of Baghbor, Hafiz Rashid Choudhury left the party because of differences with Azmal. In an interview with Sherman Ali, he stated that during 2014 Rajya Elections, the AGP-BJP-AIUDF backed independent candidate Haider Hussain could muster only 26 first preference votes despite these parties having 32 votes. Around six votes were invalid and AIUDF’s ARM Bhuyan failed to reach back home from haj on time. Sherman Ali was of the view that this debacle had a go-ahead of Azmal himself. Sherman Ali became estranged after he raised questions regarding this.
Muslims have voted strategically and not as a vote bank. In many constituencies Muslims voted for BJP-AGP alliance. For example, in the Muslim dominated East Bilasipara constituency, BJP candidate Ashok Shinghi won and it could not have been possible without Muslim votes. East Bilasipara has a total population of 184994 and it saw a 90.41% voter turnout. BJP’s Ashok Singhi won the election with total votes of 59206 and defeated the Congress Candidate Amrit Badsha by a margin of 5096. The margin has however lessened since earlier elections pointing to shifts in votes. In the previous election in 2011, AIUDF candidate Gul Akhtara Begum defeated AGP’s candidate Prashanta Kumar Barua by a margin of around 24,425 votes. While this year, the votes of the winner rose by around ten thousand, the voteshare of the runner up has also increased.
Muslims have also not voted en masse for any particular political party. In South Salmara which has an 85% Muslim population, the vote was clearly divided between Congress and AIUDF. Congress’ Wazed Ali Choudhury could get 80066 votes, Azmal managed to get 63343 votes. Muslim votes have however shifted in different ways. While in South Salmara, Muslims did not vote for AIUDF, in the neighbouring constituencies of Dhubri and Gauripur, the AIUDF candidates Nazrul Hoque and Nizanur Rahman won with excellent margins. In Dhubri AIUDF candidate Nazrul Hoque got 60933 and won by a margin of 24086. Dhubri saw a close three-way competition between ex-Congress MLA and Minister Nazibul Umar who contested as an independent candidate, Dr Debamoy Sanyal of BJP and Nazrul Hoque of AIUDF. With Congress candidate Abedur Zaman getting mere 13000 votes and Dr Sanyal getting 33000 votes, it would seem that voters in this Muslim dominated constituency voted for AIUDF to keep BJP at bay. Congress votes have shifted to both Nazibul Umar and AIUDF’s Nazrul Hoque.
A similar picture is seen in Gauripur. Traditional Congress voters voted for AIUDF’s Nijanur Rahman who got 73423 votes and won by a margin of 19911 votes. Voters felt that Congress candidate Sushil Kumar Roy will not be able to stop BPF’s sitting MLA Banendra Mushahary from winning and hence they voted for the AIUDF candidate. Nijanur Rahman also contested in 2011 when he got 37190 votes. Factors like anti-incumbency played a big role in deciding how people cast their votes. Muslims have voted for BJP in Barkhetri, Sipajhar and Sarbhog to defeat Congress.
AIUDF’s performance shows that wherever voters found a better option to AIUDF, they voted for them. But in constituencies where alternative candidates were weak, Muslims voted for AIUDF to thwart BJP’s win. This was seen in case of Dhubri and Gauripur. While the Muslim votes split in different ways, the seat share of both Congress and AIUDF came down.
Dr Hafiz Ahmed, author and President of Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad has closely observed the rise of AIUDF. Responding to Rawat’s comment, he said that the rise of AIUDF and Muslim population must be delinked. The rise in population is also largely due to lack of awareness about family planning and the high birth rate in the community. He further expressed concern that taking cue from our neighbouring country, politicization of military must be nipped in the bud or else it will put democracy in jeopardy.
Akhil Gogoi, the Convenor of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) when asked about General Rawat’s statement in a Press Conference stated that illegal influx might be happening even now as the border fencing is yet to be completed. Whether this influx is planned or not is a different question. By incorporating Muslims and Pakistan’s role, the General might be satisfying the ruling party. The Army Chief’s statement is also under scrutiny because ex Army General V K Singh joined BJP after retirement and became an MP from Ghaziabad.
The 2016 elections which saw a decline in seat share of AIUDF points to interesting shifts in electoral politics of the state. Along with Congress, AIUDF also had to bear the brunt of anti-incumbency. Despite being around for almost ten years, the problems of the community which the party claims to represent are far from over. The in-fighting in the party, the nepotism being practised, the lack of commitment of AIUDF MLAs to their constituencies further pushed away voters. According to Sherman Ali, autocratic nature of party leaders and a move away from issues cost the party in this election. The 2016 election also marked a beginning of decline of the party. While the party could have been an effective platform to raise important issues about government’s policies, its acceptance and support among the people is witnessing a decline.
The party never had the support of the entire Muslim population of the state. And the 2016 election saw Muslims further moving away from the party. In such a scenario conflating this party’s base to illegal immigrants raises many questions – the sanctity of electoral rolls and the role of Border Security Force to mention a few. Many cases of D voters have made headlines when government employees, ex armymen were served notice. Court cases have brought forth people wrongly implicated as foreigner by the FT Courts. The exercise of deciding who is an Indian and who is not has also been accused of harassing genuine Indian Muslims. In such a situation, controversial statements like Bipin Rawat’s will only further polarize an already fragmented civil society.