BJP’s victory: What it means for Assam

Parvin Sultana

The 2016 Assembly elections in Assam
gave a clear mandate to the BJP and allies. And with it the BJP will be forming
a government in Assam for the first time. The national party with its regional
allies Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) managed to
win 86 out of 126 seats. The poll results have brought forth many interesting
factors. While a strong anti-incumbency has made the change almost inevitable,
this election also saw some interesting political and ideological shifts.

Akin to the campaign of 2014 elections,
BJP’s state election campaign was also high on similar rhetoric of ‘invasion’
of illegal immigrants, loss of identity of the indigenous people, granting
citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis etc. The party succeeded in creating a frenzy
that the people of Assam are becoming a minority in their own state. While
immigration has been a crucial issue since the days of Assam Movement
(1979-1985), the regional forces often stopped short of giving it a communal
colour. Assam Movement led by All Assam Students’ Union was started to
safeguard the interests of the state and its people. ULFA was born in the
radical fringes of Assam Movement. While the movement tried not to be
chauvinistic and exclusivist, with BJP at the helm the very demands of the
Movement have been infused with a communal tinge. The illegal immigrant has
been reduced to
illegal Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh. Their regional
allies were convinced that the danger is from Muslim immigrants and Hindu
immigrants can be taken within the fold as refugees.
This in itself is an important shift. If
we go back to the language movements that once burned Assam, we will realize
that the adversary for the Assamese was the well educated Bengali who was seen
as a threat. Sandhya Goswami’s Language Politics in Assam chronicles
this clash of interests. The Assamese people have moved a long way dismissing
linguistic identity as the basis of forming alliances. It is the Muslims of
East Bengal origin who accepted Assamese language now perceived as the illegal
immigrant. Many called them neo-Assamese or Na- Axomiya who were a part of the
Greater Assamese society. But this title didn’t do much to reduce their plight.
They continue to bear the brunt of being alienated.
In the recently held elections, along
with the strong anti-incumbency and the 15 years of fatigue, BJP successfully
played on the perceived fear of the so-called illegal immigrants and invoked
rhetoric of the popular Battle of Xaraighat where Ahoms defeated Mughals.
Conveniently overlooking the fact that Bagh Hazarika fought alongside Lachit
Borphukan and defeated the Mughals led by Ram Singh, the BJP’s CM candidate
Sarbananda Sonowal portrayed it as a battle of Hindu Ahoms versus Muslim Mughals.
And by calling this the last battle of Xaraighat, he drew the battle lines
between the Hindu Axomiyas and Muslims of East Bengal origin.
BJP’s performance in Assam elections is
also due to the fact that the state was sufficiently primed for polarizing tactics.
BJP succeeded in giving a communal color to the genuine concern of the
indigenous people. While the party also promised to implement Assam Accord and
work towards ensuring some safeguards of the identity of the original
inhabitants of Assam, the community is yet to decide on the parameters of
declaring someone an Assamese – should it be an ethnic, cultural or linguistic
This election is worth to be taken into
account for the role that religion played. Unlike multiple ethnicities,
religion emerged as a deciding factor. In a post poll survey undertaken by
Lokniti, it becomes obvious that Hindu vote coalition is at the heart of BJP’s
success. The survey showed that a large section of the people who voted for BJP
felt that immigration issue was crucial and not something blown out of
proportion. They wanted Sarbananda Sonowal who championed the cause of
indigenous people as Chief Minister as opposed to Tarun Gogoi. Interestingly
the consolidation of Hindu votes was not matched by the counter-consolidation
of the Muslim votes. As popularly believed that earlier Muslims vote en masse
for Congress and later for AIUDF, Badraduddin Ajmal himself lost the election
in South Salmara showing Muslim vote was anything but consolidated. Muslims who
comprise 34% of the state population did not vote en masse.
Unlike other state elections, BJP had a
Chief Ministerial candidate for Assam. Sarbananda Sonowal, an AASU leader and
ex AGP leader was a key person in getting the IMDT Act scrapped. A result of
the historic Assam Accord signed between the State government, AASU and Central
Govt, this Act marked the date 25th March, 1971 as the benchmark for
deciding illegal immigrants. In case of accusing a person as a foreigner, the
onus was on the accuser to prove it. But Sonowal approached the Supreme Court
and got it scrapped. He seemed the ideal Son of the Soil for BJP. He
succeeded in ensuring that BJP could conveniently co-opt the issues espoused by
regional parties like AGP. His own role as a student leader of a
sub-nationalist movement made it smooth.
While the voteshare of BJP is 29.5%, a
little less than that of Congress which is 31%, AGP and BPF both gained a lot
from the alliance. This alliance revived the AGP which was kept outside power
for failure of delivering on its promises. It won 14 out of 24 seats. Similar
was the case with BPF. Fighting strong anti-incumbency as an ally of Congress,
shifting allegiance helped it win 12 out of 13 seats in BTAD.
Congress which completed three term in
power could escape anti-incumbency in 2006 and 2011 because it could deliver on
many fronts. It succeeded in bringing some semblance of peace in the state by
ending the infamous secret killings, it also brought various militant factions
to the negotiating table. However it fell short of meeting the aspirations of
the young generation by providing adequate employment. In such a situation, BJP
was successful in selling new political possibilities. And people decided to
give BJP a ‘chance’ of delivering on their promises.
The biggest change of this election for
Assam is a crucial shift in the perception of the cultural and linguistic
identity of the ethnic Assamese group. Congress miserably failed to counter
such a shift. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh  has been working in the ground level in Assam
for the last four decades and played a crucial role in this election. With the
BJP in power, the RSS bigwigs will soon start flexing muscles to carry on their
Hindutva project. At the receiving end will be the hapless Muslims of East
Bengal origin who will be singled out as the ‘Other’. Another target will be the
Christian missionaries who work with the tribal population. The state might see
a different kind of ‘ghar vapsi’ with an emphasis on the reconversion of
Christian tribals.

Commentators have already expressed
their concern on Assam being the latest laboratory of Hindutva. While the party
ensured a comfortable win riding on the tide of taking on the ‘outsiders’, the
state might witness clashes if the government pushes forth controversial
policies like differential treatment of Hindu and Muslim Bangladeshis. With BJP
winning a lion’s share of seats (60 out of 86), the bargaining power of
regional parties is lessened. In such a case how far BJP pushes its rightwing
agenda at the cost of safeguarding the interests of the indigenous populace is yet
to be seen.

Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor in P B
College of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, development
and northeast, gender etc.

2 thoughts on “BJP’s victory: What it means for Assam”

  1. Till the time the East Bengal origin Muslims use Religion as their only tool for identification in the society, they will have to face this discrimination. Because it is as bad as RSS using only religion to further their cause. They will have to disclose their ethnic identity, else they will be known as'Bangladeshi' in the society. Calling someone Hindu or Muslim gives communal sense in a secular state.
    However,it is a well written piece.

  2. IH Mandal its a valid point. Identity politics ultimately harms the community. I hope leadership among the Muslims in Assam realizes it soon. Secular polity is only way forward. However, we should factor the insecurities witch forces communities to stick together. Here lies the role of the state in giving the Muslims and other such groups the confidence in the secular polity and justice system. Unfortunately with the rise of BJP that feeling of insecurity will further increase.

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