Tuesday, May 24, 2016

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 identity?

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.


  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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