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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 29 New Delhi July 9, 2016

Assam Election Results 2016: Challenges to Pluralist Ethos

Saturday 9 July 2016

by Ram Puniyani

This time around (2016 elections) the BJP has managed to come to power in Assam, though as a coalition with its allies. Its vote-share this time came down to 29.5 per cent from the earlier 36.5 per cent (2014); still because of the strategically stitched alliances it beat the Congress in the number of seats won. The BJP’s election appeal was centred on the divisive issue of Bangaldeshi immigrants. It took care to regard the three per cent native Muslims on the ground of ‘Native Assamese identity’ while the Bengali Muslims (32 per cent) were singled out as immigrants, outsiders. The Bengali immigrant Hindus were projected as refugees. The BJP’s propaganda was on the lines of Hindus versus Muslims. Cleverly it was presented as natives versus outsiders.

Elections 2016

Taking recourse to communal historiography the election was presented as the second battle of Saraighat, where Lachit Burfukan had defeated the Mughal Army in 1671. As such the many commanders and soldiers of Lachit were Muslims also like Bagh Hazarika. The Mughal Army had many Hindu Generals and soldiers. But the tale was spun directed against the Mughals who were projected in the form of Badruddin Ajmal; the latter was the main target as he was presented as a symbol of Bengali Muslims. At the electoral level the Muslim votes got split between the Congress and Ajmal’s party. Now the new government is planning to identify the Bangaldeshi immigrants and throw them out. As such Assam has been witnessing the harassment of Muslims and many of them have been denied voting rights by putting them in the D voter category (D for doubtful).


The immigration has been presented in the communal colours in Assam. Essentially the problem is due to pressures related to jobs and other livelihood issues. In the decade of the 1980s, the parochial forces gave the slogan ‘Assam for Assamese’ quite on the lines of Maharashtra for Marathis by the sectarian Shiv Sena in Mumbai. The first major catastrophe in this context occurred in the 1980s, when the All Assam Students Union (AASU) demanded exclusion of Bangladeshi immigrants from the electoral rolls. In 1983, over 3000 people were killed in Nellie, near Guwahati. Those killed were Muslims, dubbed as illegal migrants and occupants of land that belonged to the Lalung tribe. The Tribhuban Das Tiwary Commission was constituted to inquire into the Nellie massacre, but the AASU, now the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), after coming to power dropped all the criminal cases against the culprits and the report of the Commission was never made public. A decade later there was another series of violence, the victims of which are still living in relief camps.

At another level the agitation of the Bodo’s led to the creation of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), giving most powers to Bodos in the four districts, Khokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udal-giri; three of which have undergone massive violence in July 2012. This violence was preceded by a rumour that people from Bangladesh have brought in a huge caché of armaments. This rumour soon triggered into violence that left lakhs of people displaced and some killings.

The claim that Bodos are a majority and need to preserve their ethnic identity and interests in the area, does not hold any water since the estimate of percentage of Bodos in this area varies from 22 to 29 per cent only. With full powers given to them under this Council they have marginalised the other sections of society very badly. The other point of view is that despite the formation of Bodo Territorial Council, the Bodos did not surrender their arms, which was one of the conditions for accepting the demand of this Regional Council.

Bengali Immigration: History

The study of population statistics will make it clear that the beginning of the coming of Bengali- speaking Muslims in Assam was due to the policy of the British in the early part of the 20th Century. There is a long history of Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam. For example, there were close to five lakh Muslims in Assam in 1931. In the beginning Bengal was a very populous and politically the most aware area. Assam at that time was sparsely populated. The British undertook a ‘human plantation policy’ in the beginning of the twentieth century. The basic idea of the British policy was three-fold. One was to ensure the shifting of people from the overpopulated Bengal to Assam. Two, it aimed to reduce the incidence of famine and unrest in Bengal. And three, the British wanted to make Assam habitable and collect revenue from that area.

Irrespective of the propaganda about Bangla- deshi infiltrators, research based on population statistics of the last century shows that Muslims in the region are settlers from pre-partition Bengal to begin with. Later, there was some migration at the time of partition in 1947 and still later in the aftermath of the 1971 war with Pakistan, leading to the formation of Bangla-desh. Nilim Dutta in ‘Myth of Bangladeshi and Violence in Assam’ shows that migration has taken place over a period of time and the increase of population stops after 1971.

The Assam Accord of 1985 granted citizenship rights to all those who had settled in Assam till 1971. This accord recognises all those living in this area as legal settlers and so most of the Muslims fall in that category. Not to deny that that a small number of illegal immigrants, the ones forced to migrate for economic reasons, may also be there.

Despite these facts, the issue has become a big fodder for communal politics, which keeps harping on ‘Bangaldeshi infiltrators’. They go on with the propaganda that ‘Hindu migrants from Bangladesh are refugees while the Muslims are infiltrators’. Even the 2012 violence was labelled by the communal forces as the consequence of strife between Bodos (nationa-lists) and Muslims (foreigners!). The plight of the Muslims who speak Bengali is pathetic as not only are they marginalised and looked down upon, many of them do not even have voting rights and some of them are put in the category of D voters. There is an active hate-industry blaming the ruling party of encouraging infiltration for the sake of votes while in reality the economic migration, which is associated with regional disparities, has also come down heavily with the Bangladesh economy looking up in the last few decades.

The Political Challenges

During the last Lok Sabha elections (2014), the BJP won seven (out of 14) MP seats from Assam. Though the present victory of the BJP is not due to its vote-share, still it has brought the BJP Government to power and is giving it further opportunity to strengthen the work of the RSS combine in the State. The RSS has been very active in the State and has started Ekal schools (nearly four thousand), Sarswati Shishu Mandirs (590), nearly 100 student hostels. There are nearly 12,000 RSS shakhas in Assam. It is these thousands of RSS volunteers who campaign during elections for the victory of the BJP. Through Seva Bharati they are running health services in villages.

All in all the challenge for the democratic forces will increase tremendously as these RSS- run organisations now will have more influence due to direct state patronage. The RSS indoctri-nated teachers and volunteers will be spreading their sectarian ideology in a more cohesive way. Already there is a plan to open RSS-run schools in most of the areas.

Tasks Ahead

The Bihar experiment of mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) did tell us that it is possible to halt the march of the communal forces if the political elements believing in pluralism and democracy come together. At another level the social and cultural work to promote the values of pluralism and amity are the need of the hour. The major acts of violence have been precipitated on the issue of Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants. As these Muslims have a long lineage in India, they need to be given due justice as Indian citizens. The process of identification and exiling them leads to great harassment to many Bengali- speaking Muslims. The plan of the RSS-BJP to identify and exile them needs to be opposed. The role of the BJP has been of exerting pressure to target them to create a social divide. Social groups have to take up the challenge of communal politics at multiple levels, not just on the electoral ground.


The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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