The road to saffron: A brief history from Assam

The venue of the BJP national executive meeting in Allahabad blazed with the red flowers of the Axomiya gamosa as the party celebrated it’s first-ever victory in Assam. Party leaders claimed that the choice to congratulate the national executive members with the Axomiya gamosa was a symbolic gesture to express their gratitude to the people of Assam. But there was more in store for Assam apart from the merely symbolic. The resolution adopted by the national executive on the final day had eight paragraphs on Assam, which is one-third of the document. The resolution repeatedly stresses the singular importance of the electoral victory in the state- “The mandate of Assam calls for a very special mention. Assam holds an important place in the minds and hearts of millions of BJP karyakartas across the country.” “It signifies a major ideological victory for the Party.” “This victory is hard-earned one for the Party.” The resolution underlines another factor- the threat posed to Axomiya identity by the relentless infiltration of Bangladeshis. The illegal flow of Bangladeshis into the state, according to the resolution, has reached “Himalayan proportions” and the threat of an impending demographic convulsion is very much real.

The support that propelled BJP to power in Assam merits an analysis because the distribution of political allegiance ahead of the election defied the conventional logic of communal polarisation. The Muslim population of the state is a divided house, which is why the normative Hindu-Muslim binary that operates in other parts of India fails to explain the relation between the two communities in Assam. The parties representing the indigenous Assamese Muslims (the first such Muslim was Ali Mech, a native of Kamrup who converted to Islam during Bakhtiyar Khilji’s military expedition to the region in early thirteenth century) – Sadou Asom Goriya Moriya Desi Jatiya Parishad, Sadou Asom Goriya Yuba Chatra Parishad, Khilongia Asomiya Musalman Unnayan Parishad, Khilongia Musalman Suraksha Mancha, Ujoni Asom Muslim Kalyan Parishad and Asomiya Muslim Kalyan Parishad reposed their faith in the BJP’s Vision Document in the run-up to the election. The Muslim groups also clarified their opposition to Badaruddin Ajmal’s All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and described Ajmal as a ‘threat.’ While the indigenous Muslims of Assam are scattered throughout the state, the descendents of the Bengali Muslim immigrants of East Bengali origin are concentrated in the lower and middle Assam districts of the Brahmaputra valley and parts of Barak valley. The latter category of Muslims living in the state today trace their origin to the Bengali Muslim settler-peasants from East Bengal who were brought to inhabit and cultivate the wastelands of Lower Assam by the colonial state with the complicity of the Axomiya middle-class starting from the latter half of the nineteenth century. The settlers were poor, hardy peasants who soon turned the wastelands into revenue-generating assets. At the same time, they also activated a creative process of assimilation with the Axomiyas. Their decision to state their mother-tongue as Axomiya played a major role in Axomiya becoming the majority language of the state for the first time in the 1951 census. The community also threw their weight behind the Axomiyas during the language movements in 1960 and 1972. But the process of assimilation received a jolt during the Assam movement when the Muslims of East Bengali origin found themselves at the receiving end of a frenzied demand to expel the illegal foreigners residing in the state. There was growing anxiety among the members of the community and the massacre at Nellie on February 18, 1983 convinced them that their fear was indeed real. On the contrary, the composition of the leadership of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), key constituent of the Gana Xangram Parikhad which led the movement, reflected the strong support the movement had among the indigenous Muslims. The Vice-President of AASU and the Presidents of the Kamrup and Jorhat unit of the AASU were indigenous Muslims of Assam. A section of the Muslims in the state were however sceptical of the intentions of the AASU and the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) was formed in May 1980 to counter the AASU. AAMSU won the trust of the Muslims of East Bengali origin and organised rallies against the anti-foreigner upsurge in Lower Assam.

The anti-foreigner movement ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam accord between the AASU and the Congress government at the centre. The culmination of the movement laid bare the tension between the indigenous Muslims and the Muslims of East Bengali origin. The Axom Gana Parikhad (AGP), the political party floated by the movement leadership sought the people’s mandate, while AAMSU also spawned its own political arm called the United Minority Front (UMF). The UMF united a number of organisations like the All Assam Minority Front, Citizens’ Right Preservation Committee, Assam Jamiat Ulema and All Assam Minority Juba Parikhad and won a considerable 17 seats in the 1986 election.

Another critical moment that changed the way the descendents of the immigrant Muslims relate to the Axomiyas was the assembly election of 1983. That was the time of the mass demonstrations to press for an electoral list cleansed of illegal voters and both urban and rural masses in the Brahmaputra valley heeded the call to boycott the election that was supposed to be conducted on the basis of the old voter list. But the centre wanted to conduct the election in the state at any cost. The dogmatic attitude of the centre was locked into the equally rigid stand of the AASU leaders who appealed to the people to boycott the election. The call to stay away from the election influenced the constituencies inhabited by indigenous Axomiyas and there was no polling in as many as 17 constituencies. The percentage of voter turnout was 31% thanks to regular voting in the two hill districts, Barak valley and the constituencies dominated by the descendents of the immigrant Muslims in middle and lower Assam. These Muslims wanted to cast a ballot so that a government which would look after their interests could come to power. But their decision to vote earned the wrath of the leaders and supporters of the Assam movement. As a result, 500 Muslims were killed in Saolkhuwa and this was followed by the gruesome killing of 1600 immigrant Muslims in Nellie in central Assam. The Congress won the state election and the Indira Gandhi government at the centre quickly enacted the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT) in Assam to work as a legal buffer against the persecution of the Muslims of East Bengali origin under the pretext of ousting the foreigners from the state. The IMDT was a marked departure from the conventions of deporting foreigners from Indian territory under the Foreigners Act, 1946 as the new law shifted the onus of proving the citizenship or otherwise on the accuser or complainant who must reside within a 3 kilometre radius of the accused. The police would then make a preliminary investigation and submit a report to a committee constituted by the District police superintendent and the Sub-divisional magistrate. This committee would make the necessary judgments and submit their report to the government who would then direct the District Tribunal to initiate legal proceedings. In case the decision of the tribunal is challenged, the accuser can move the appellate court in Guwahati. The appellate court’s judgment can be further challenged by the accused in the High Court which can direct the appellate authority to review the case. The IMDT Act therefore provided for layers of screening in the case of an alleged illegal foreigner and provided legal safeguards to the accused against the use of arbitrary power by the state.

In the meantime, a strong anti-IMDT lobby developed at the behest of the nationalist parties-AGP, BJP, AASU and Axom Jatiyotabadi Juba Chhatra Parikhad (AJYCP). The Congress stuck to its position that the IMDT was required to provide legal safeguards to the minorities in the state in an atmosphere vitiated by the dubious inheritance of the Assam movement. The IMDT Act was finally revoked by the Supreme Court in July 2005 after former AASU president and then AGP leader Sarbananda Sonowal petitioned the apex Court. The Court declared the Act unconstitutional as it saw no reason why the foreigners staying illegally in Assam should be treated differentially from those in other parts of the country. The Court maintained that the jurisdiction of the Foreigners Act, 1946 could cover the territory of Assam as well. The annulment of the Act was seen by the nationalist camp as a movement forward towards cleansing Assam of infiltrators. And the hero in the nationalist camp was Sarbananda Sonowal. He was hailed as the jatiya nayak (national hero).

The repeal of the IMDT Act reinforced existing religious faultlines in the state. The All Assam Minority Students’ Union and the Muslim Juba Parikhad blamed the Congress governments at the centre and state for the revocation of the Act and reached New Delhi along with hundreds of supporters where they sat at a dharna at Jantar Mantar to publicise their demand for a similar Act to be enacted again in parliament. The Assam unit of the Jamiat Ulema-E-Hind joined the protest against the repeal of the Act. Jamiat President Badaruddin Ajmal united thirteen Muslim organisations and floated a new political party called the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) by the end of 2005. The United Minority Front (UMF) whose influence had waned after the success in the 1986 election became a constituent of the AUDF. The AUDF fought the 2006 state assembly election and won 10 seats. The new party, as expected, dented the traditional Muslim bastions of the Congress and the Congress had to ally with the Bodo People’s Progressive Front (BPF) to form the government. The AUDF soon morphed into the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and tried to expand its base outside Assam. The process of polarising the electorate on communal lines continued in the 2011 assembly elections in which the AIUDF emerged as the main opposition party.

A number of events followed each other quickly in the next couple of years. The ‘jatiya nayak’ Sarbananda Sonowal joined the BJP and subsequently became the state unit President. But there was nothing radical in this act of switching parties. Sonowal deserted a regional nationalist party that had lost the people’s faith only to join another nationalist party with a communal agenda that was yet to win the trust of the people of Assam. While Sonowal’s former party had come to power riding on the avowed principle of opposing the presence of illegal foreigners in Assam, his new party had a history of advocating opposition to alleged foreigners but was yet to attain an opportunity to actually implement its purported anti-foreigner agenda in the state. It was the dismal performance of the AGP in the 2009 Lok Sabha election (the party won just 1 out of the 9 seats it contested) that convinced Sarbananda and many others of his ilk that the AGP’s brand of nationalism had ceased to appeal to the people. Sarbananda crossed over to the BJP in 2011, became the President of the state BJP unit in 2012 and two years later led the party to victory in 7 out of the 14 seats from Assam in the Lok Sabha election.

The AGP’s alienation from the people continued in the 2011 assembly election and the party allied with the BJP months before the 2016 polls. Even though this was not the first time that the AGP had dilly-dallied with elements averse to its own ideology, the party’s decision to join hands with the Hindu-nationalist party left many people wondering if a regional-nationalist agenda had become altogether dispensable for the AGP. The decision to join a national party whose agenda is set by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh diluted whatever had remained of the AGP’s regional credentials. Meanwhile, in a communication to the Assam government in September 2015, the BJP central committee announced its decision to grant citizenship rights to the Hindu Bengali infiltrators from Bangladesh residing in Assam till December 31, 2014. This announcement flew in the face of the AGP leaders’ avowed commitment to weed out illegal migrants from the state. History behoves us to associate AGP leaders with secular opposition to foreigners residing illegally in Assam. Following is an excerpt from a letter written by the then AASU General Secretary and later the Home Minister in the AGP government, Bhrigu Kumar Phukan to the central government on 13 November 1980-

“[…] in the last round of talks, you mentioned special advantages due to the displaced people and obliquely that means you wanted to introduce religion in the process of identifying foreigners. If the central government persists with such a mentality, then the unity between the various religious communities of Indians living in Assam will be endangered. We can never allow such a situation […]”

In a far cry from such ideological moorings, the AGP allied with the Hindutva party even as AGP leaders distanced themselves from issues such as the granting of citizenship rights to Bengali Hindu infiltrators and the construction of mega dams at the Subansari. The vital outcome of the AGP-BJP alliance was that middle-class Axomiya nationalism lost its most articulate voice and representative as the AGP conceded itself to the BJP. The BJP had already proved its growing popularity among the voters of Assam and soon occupied the space vacated by the AGP. In the meantime, we shall have to wait and see whether the AGP has completely forfeited its identity to the saffron party.

The saffron party revived the most important inheritance of the Assam movement- mistrust on the part of the descendents of the immigrant Muslim population of the exclusive intentions of the indigenous Axomiyas. In its Vision Document 2016-2015 for Assam, the BJP’s approach to the Muslim population of the state is clearly biased against the Muslims of East Bengali origin. Under the sub-section ‘Religious Minorities’ Welfare,’ there is a resolution to protect the “socio-economic and political identity of indigenous Assamese Muslims like Goriya, Moriya, Desi, Maimol and others.” This point is backed up by another undertaking to conduct academic research on the identity, language and culture of the indigenous Muslims. The descendents of the immigrant Muslims figure in the document only in a tangential way- there would be missions to develop skill-based education and girls’ education in the char-chapori areas (These are the riverine tracts inhabited mostly by these Muslims). The document is conspicuous by the absence of any resolution to protect the identity of the descendents of the immigrant Muslims. However what confounds most is the assertion that only the Goriyas, Moriyas and their ilk who came to Assam some eight hundred years ago are “indigenous Muslims,” a chilling reminder that the Muslims of East Bengali origin are viewed as illegitimate citizens by the Hindutva party.

The other important ally of the BJP, the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) was a constituent of the Congress when the latter formed the government in 2011. The AIUDF became the main opposition party in the state and the traditional Muslim votes of the Congress were affected. The BPF was the first ally that the BJP found in Assam and Prime Minister Modi seized the moment by launching the party campaign in Assam from Kokrajhar, capital of the Bodo Territorially Administered Districts (BTAD). BTAD is strategically important- 16 representatives in the state assembly come from the area. Modi highlighted the party’s agenda of development but eschewed the contentious issue of a separate Bodoland. But the demand for a separate Bodoland still resonates. In March, a new party- the United People’s Party (UPP), backed by the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (G) was formed and it allied with the Congress. The UPP kept alive the hope of a separate Bodoland but failed to win a single seat out of the four seats that it had contested. On the other hand, the BPF won 12 out of the 13 contested seats. What emerges from the people’s voting behaviour is that the immediate necessity to preserve Bodo identity from its nearest possible threat-the purportedly illegal Bangladeshis, won over the long-cherished hope of a separate Bodoland. The decisive turn of the electorate towards the BJP-BPF alliance reflected the people’s anxiety engendered by the spectre of the Bangladeshis. It is worth mentioning here that the relation between Bodos and Muslims in the BTAD areas is fraught with distrust. Large-scale violence between the two communities had crystallised into a humanitarian crisis in mid-2012. Almost a hundred people had lost their lives and some 400,000 displaced. This crisis was preceded by sporadic outbursts of violence between the two communities. A section of Bodo and mainstream Hindu leaders had tried to fix the blame on the demographic convulsions wrought by unchecked immigration from Bangladesh. The area remained susceptible to communal polarisation as a sizeable number of D-voters (This is the legal term for the category of doubtful voters or those Muslims of East Bengali origin who are disenfranchised because they are unable to provide proof of Indian citizenship) are concentrated in the BTAD districts. No wonder the BJP’s professed high-handed approach to deal with the problem of ‘Bangladeshis’ drew the people towards the party.

Could there be any other rationale apart from its communal agenda that explains BJP’s insistence on aggressively taking on the Bangladeshi infiltrators in Assam? The BJP’s image of a Hindi-speaking Hindu party had to accommodate the regional aspiration of the Axomiyas and the party did it with an effortless tweak: they couched their Hindutva agenda in the familiar idiom of the burning need to check infiltration of Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh. Or else what explains the party’s decision to grant legitimacy to the Bengali Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh who crossed over to Assam till December 31, 2014? This announcement scoffs at the gullible electorate whose anxiety to preserve their indigenous identity is demeaned by the saffron leaders’ devious ploy to legalise a section of infiltrators from Bangladesh. Through this decision, the BJP has caused a mutation in the contours of Axomiya society. The elementary aspects of the formation of Axomiya society, historically, have been language and a composite culture but the proclamation to legalise the Hindu Bangladeshi infiltrators tries to extend Axomiya society towards a religious angle. The credulous electorate, hardpressed by a perceived fear of being swamped by Muslim infiltrators from Bangladesh slighted the discredited Congress and turned towards the BJP whose government at the centre has been promoting a cult of masochistic jingoism. A similar macho political culture was needed in Assam to strike hard at the aggression of the Bangladeshis. Love-jihad, ghar-wapsi and beef failed to sway the people of Assam which left the saffron party with that familiar Other deeply embedded in the Axomiya psyche- the Bengali Muslim infiltrator from Bangladesh. The BJP’s campaign to deal with these infiltrators with an iron fist chimed with people’s concern to protect their indigenous identity. At the same time, the machinations of Hindutva propped up the BJP’s professed resolve to protect Axomiya identity from the infiltrators. Identity politics and elements of Hindutva crossed paths as BJP won a resounding victory. But it would be worthwhile to remember that the support that upholds the BJP government is based on weak ground, at least theoretically. An alternative identity politics that goes beyond the spectre of the Bengali Muslim infiltrator could be mobilised by either of the two regional parties in the BJP alliance. As for now, one needs to wait and keep a careful vigil.


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Rupam Sindhu Kalita Written by:

Rupam Sindhu Kalita is an MPhil student at the Department of English, Delhi University.

One Comment

  1. A M Passah
    July 12, 2016

    Good and solid hit. Now the people of Assam will see what they have wrought. Already plans for dams, oilfields, gardens are being made. Enjoy what you sow Assam !!

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