All Hindu Consolidation or the last battle to protect Assamese Identity: Assam Polls Results

In 1671 the great Ahom general Lachit Barphukan defeated the Mughals. Ismail Siddique aka Bagh Hazarika was a commander under Lachit Barphukan and a Hindu general Ram Singh led the Mughal Army. The battle was fought at Saraighat. Never was the battle of Saraighat seen as a Hindu versus the Muslims until the 2016 assembly election of Assam. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declared that the election is the last battle of Saraighat- the last battle to protect the identity of Assam. BJP made this the theme of the recently-held election. The result shows that it did strike a chord with large section of people in Assam.

The BJP never did actually say, directly who the Mughals of 2016 are, but they didn’t leave any room for doubt, either. Tarun Gogoi, an Ahom, made a feeble attempt to term Narendra Modi as the Mughal who is trying to invade Assam. He failed miserably in his attempt.BJP went overboard to assert, in turn, who is the present day Ahom(s) and who the Mughal(s), of course by doing what they do best: distorting history.

Amit Shah in an election rally said that Ahom King Sukapha defeated the Mughals 17 times. Well, Sukapha founded the Ahom dynasty in 1228 AD and died in 1268 AD. The historical rule of the Mughal dynasty in India, began in 1526 AD; just 300 years apart, but not bad. It proved a good slogan and mobilization, too good for BJP.

For Assam this was a historic election. Not only because the Lotus bloomed for the first time in North East but, more importantly, because for the first time Hindu votes –across the board – got consolidated. If at all this was a battle to protect identity it was the Hindu identity and not the Assamese identity. The main target of the BJP in this election were the Muslims of Bengali origin.

The migration of the hard working Muslim peasants of Bengal origin started from the later part of 19th century according to a well planned British strategy to grow more food. The migration was at its peak between the first and third decades decade of the 20th Century. By the time India gained Independence the Muslim population of Assam had become 24%.

In  the 1950s, during the language movement, the Muslims of Bengali origin accepted the Assamese language by giving up their mother tongue, an unprecedented sacrifice. Today there is not even a single Bengali medium school in entire areas dominated by Muslims of Bengal origin. They got assimilated with the culture and started calling themselves Assamese. Many Assamese intellectuals call them Neo-Assamese.

In 1960, Assam Assembly passed the Language Bill making Assamese the official language of Assam. The language bill would not have been passed without the help of Muslims of Bengali origin. Except a handful of people, the sacrifice of Muslims of Bengali origin never got acknowledged. Very soon, the Muslims of Bengali origin became the target of chauvinistic leaders.

In the beginning of Assam movement, Bengali Hindus, Marwaris, Nepalis and the Muslims of Bengal origin were targeted as  outsiders- Hindus and Muslims alike. How could RSS have stayed silent when Hindus were targeted? There comes the RSS twist to the Assam movement. Slowly the movement that started against all outsiders became a movement that only targeted ‘illegal’ immigrants.  The Muslims of Bengal origin who migrated much before Independence were branded as illegal immigrants. Bengali Hindus were not spared, but the worst kind of atrocities were inflicted on Muslims. This six year-long movement had such a long-lasting affect that it still decides who will win elections in Assam.

Amit Shah in an election rally said that Ahom King Sukapha defeated the Mughals 17 times. Well, Sukapha founded the Ahom dynasty in 1228 AD and died in 1268 AD. The historical rule of the Mughal dynasty in India, began in 1526 AD; just 300 years apart, but not bad. It proved a good slogan and mobilization, too good for BJP.

The Assam movement was seen as movement to protect Assamese identity. After six years when the leaders of the Assam movement formed a political party named the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to contest election, they ended up winning only 55 seats, nine short of absolute majority. Bengali Hindus and Muslims of Bengali origin didn’t vote for them. The biggest take away lesson from this election was – no party could get absolute majority without the support of Muslims and Bengali Hindus.

The BJP think tank was very much aware of this and conscious that, just Muslim-bashing, per se, won’t help, or work. If at all, the BJP wanted to achieve its ‘Mission 84’ to form govt on their own they had to unite the Hindus.

This is further evident from the repeated statements made by Himanta Biswa Sarma, the former Congressman,  the new Hindu Hriday Samrat of Assam. Talking about Indian Muslims of Bengali origin, Sarma told the Indian Express,I am saying they are people who came from Bangladesh in different years. It’s about ethnicity, our Assamese culture. The fight in Assam is about those 34 seats where Bangladeshi immigrants, who are now Indian citizens, are in a majority. Out of the 126 seats, we have to work hard in the remaining 92 seats to save our identity. This is our last chance. We don’t want Bangladeshi people to encroach on not just our land but also our political space. In this election Bangladeshi immigrants want their own chief minister, too.” 

The Chief Minister he was referring to is Badruddin Ajmal, who lost by more than 16000 votes in a constituency with more than 97 per cent Muslim population. The constituency is South Salamara. Wazed Ali Chowdhury a Congress candidate won because he was seen as a man with far greater credibility. Wherever the Muslims had a better alternative to the AIUDF, the latter lost.

The BJP fought this last battle to save Assamese ethnicity and culture from Muslims of Bengali origin who had accepted Assamese language and got assimilated with Assamese society. The Marwaris and Bengali Hindus never threatened the BJPs version of Assamese ethnicity and culture.

The BJP also made its intention to give citizenship to only Hindus who came from Bangladesh, clear. This has been a plan of the party since 2014. Himanta Biswa Sarma went to the extent of saying that even if a Hindu came just a day before –yesterday– from Bangladesh they would be granted citizenship. In contrast, during its campaign, the BJP has vowed to strip Muslims of Bengali origin of their citizenship. Four Marwaris and 12 Bengali Hindus won on a BJP ticket in a state election fought as the last battle to protect Assamese ethnicity and culture. There is no doubt that Marwaris and Bengali Hindus are integral part of greater Assamese society, but so are the Muslims of Bengali origin who considers themselves as Assamese. The only difference is the religion. They were and have been however completely sidelined by the BJP. How can the BJP explain this and justify it ? How can the BJP say that it has no problem with Muslims?

Two posters played a crucial role for BJP in this election; it featured one common man – Maulana Baddrudin Ajmal, the perfume baron chief of AIUDF.

 One poster had picture of Ajmal and Sarbananda Sonowal with the caption “Whom do you want to see as the Chief Minister of Assam”.

The BJP fought this last battle to save Assamese ethnicity and culture from Muslims of Bengali origin who had accepted Assamese language and got assimilated with Assamese society. The Marwaris and Bengali Hindus never threatened the BJPs version of Assamese ethnicity and culture.

Another poster had picture of Ajmal and his party men with Tarun Gogoi, the picture was taken when AIUDF leaders were giving a memorandum to Assam Chief Minister; the only thing that AIUDF has done for the people they claim to represent is submitting memorandum to different constitutional authorities and taking pictures of these meeting and then showing these photos around to justify their relevance. The BJP used one of such picture to its best interest. BJP circulated this picture through big hoardings all over the state with caption “Secret pact between Congress and AIUDF”. An impression was created that if people don’t vote for the BJP, the Congress and AIUDF will form government and Ajmal will become the Chief Minister of Assam. Voting for Congress was like voting for AIUDF!  The incompetence and political naivety of Ajmal was not the issue for BJP, his identity was the sole issue. It worked wonders for the BJP. Hindu votes got consolidated like never before and BJP made history in Assam. 

After the election results, when it became clear that BJP had succeeded in polarising the people of Assam on religious lines, the BJP think tank started a reverse propaganda drive to quell its communal image. They started propagating the theory that Assamese Muslims voted for BJP en masse! The insidious motive was and is to show that the Assam polity is not polarised and some Muslims stand with the BJP. There is no doubt that based on local issues some Muslims ended up voting for the BJP, even some Muslims of Bengali origin and some Muslims of Bark valley voted for BJP but it was nowhere close to an all-state phenomenon it is being made out to be.

It was merely an exception. In upper Assam, where the Congress got otherwise wiped out, the handful of seats that the grand old party won was because the Assamese Muslim vote played a crucial role in the Congress victory. Most importantly in the Nazira and Sibsagar constituency which is the heartland of Assamese Muslims, the Congress won both seats. In these two constituencies Muslim population comprised of more than 30 percent. In Amguri, another constituency with sizable Assamese Muslim votes, Congress candidate lost by only 1620 votes.

In Hajo, a lower Assam constituency known for its communal harmony with a sizable number of Assamese Muslim Population tells another story. The Guwahati Lok Sabha MP’s daughter won on the BJP ticket but in a crooked contest: an Assamese Muslim was a Congress candidate. When BJP realized that its senior leader’s daughter is losing, something exceptional happened. Another Assamese Muslim, an AGP stalwart contested from Hajo on the party ticket at a time when there was an alliance with AGP and BJP. So two alliance partners contested on the same seat! The result was obvious, the Assamese Muslim votes got divided and the Congress candidate lost by less than 9000 votes, the AGP candidate got more than 16000 votes.

It is no wonder BJP had no complaint against the AGP candidate who violated the alliance rule and contested from the same constituency against the BJP. BJPs fake love for the Assamese Muslim got exposed yet another time. In Chaygaon an Assamese Muslim won on the Congress ticket; the BJPs dirty tricks didn’t work here. BJP claims that it is not against the Assamese indigenous Muslims. But can the BJP claim that it gave ticket to any Assamese indigenous Muslim where there was and is any chance of that candidate winning? The answer is big no. Even the president of Minority Morcha of the BJP, Mominul Awal, was denied a ticket, a person who alone brought many Muslims to the BJP but was not even worth a BJP ticket! The BJP could have fielded Assamese Muslim candidate in both Nazira and Sibsagar constituency, but they didn’t. Nor did the Congress in all these years. Shall we understand that in the land of Shankar-Azan an Assamese Muslim can’t even win from a constituency despite having more 30 percent Assamese Muslim votes?

BJP projected Assam win as a national win, not only because it won the state for the first time, but also because it succeeded in polarising people on religious line and consolidated the Hindu votes in Assam.
(The author is an Guwahati based lawyer, He tweets at @AmanWadud)



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