Muslims are equal citizens, not subjects, Mr. Himanta Biswa Sarma 

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In a recent interview with NDTV, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that he would not “seek Muslim votes”. His statement not only contradicts the stated policy of the national BJP but also violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution. His remark also goes against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reach out to the backward Muslim community, better known as Pasmanda Muslims.

Sarma, who joined the BJP in 2015 from the Congress, claimed during the interview that he did not believe in “vote bank” politics. He alleged his farmer party for playing the Muslim card. As he put it, “Right now, I don’t want Muslim votes. All problems happen because of vote bank politics. I visited a Muslim area once a month, attend their events and meet people, but I don’t link politics with development. I want Muslims to realize their relationship with the Congress is all about votes”.

It is not correct to say that Congress alone indulges in vote bank politics and Sarma and his party BJP are ignorant about it.

Remember that his association with Congress has been decades-long. He was elected to the state assembly for three consecutive terms on the Congress ticket. If Congress had been neck-deep in the vote bank politics, why did he not raise the issue earlier? Or does he now want us to believe that as soon as he left the Congress, it started “appeasing” Muslims and “acting against Hindus”?

Soon after joining the BJP, Biswa became a virulent critic of the Congress. He often gives statements against the Congress when PM Modi or the BJP government is questioned by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. He is notorious for giving highly indecent and personal remarks against the Nehru-Gandhi family and other opposition leaders including Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

Sarma, however, does not want us to remember the past when the BJP was his bitter critic. When he was in the Congress party, the BJP published a booklet (July 21, 2015), alleging that Sarma — as the minister in charge of the Guwahati Development Department (GDD) under the Congress regimes — was a “key suspect” in the scam. But the narrative dramatically changed soon after he switched sides.

Unlike Sarma’s statement, the BJP has also mastered vote bank politics and indulged in all unfair practices. Before Sarma joined the party, the BJP had a very weak organisation in Assam. At the top level, the BJP lured the disgruntled Congress leaders to its fold. But those who were unwilling to join the saffron party were coerced to follow suit. At the grassroots level, the BJP widened its narrow social base by bringing in local leaders. Money and fear of the police and other investigative agencies played a big role in it. The internal contradiction within the BJP fold was slowly silenced in the din of anti-Muslim narratives. The fear of Muslim dominance in the state was injected into the psyche of the people. The upper-caste-led media was employed for this.

As a result, the complex issue of Assam was reduced to the divisive discourse of the so-called Muslim infiltrators who are threatening to change the state’s demography. The upper leaders of Assam, to which Sarma belongs, were at the forefront of creating a new binary between “the aggrieved indigenous Hindu-Assamese people” and the Bangladeshi infiltrator Muslims. Even the liberal sections of Assam and a big population of marginalized sections suddenly turned into the supporters of the BJP under the influence of right-wing propaganda. After coming to power, the BJP consolidated its position further by arresting gross-root-level leaders, who were critical of the BJP government in the state.

Beyond the BJP propaganda, the heart problem in the state is the unequal relationship between the centre and the state. Other challenges include (a) achieving inclusive development, (b) protecting natural resources from being monopolized by the big corporate players and (c) ensuring the rights of the most vulnerable community of the state including Adivasis. Worse still, the Adivasis and other backward castes are largely excluded from the administration and public institutions in Assam. From business to culture, cinema and media, Dalits, Adivasis, Backward castes and Muslims are kept out. Since Sarma knows these fault lines well, he tries to blame Muslims and Congress for all the problems. Recently, he made a highly irresponsible statement by blaming Muslims for the price rise of vegetables in the state.

Soon after joining the party, Sarma manoeuvred to succeed Sarbananda Sonewal as the fifteenth chief minister of the state. As stated above, while Sarma belongs to a Brahmin caste, Sonewal is an Adivasi. His ascendance in the BJP is due to his ability to exploit the upper caste network. Note that the numerically smaller upper castes are ruling the roost in the state, while the majority including Dalits, OBCs, Adivasi and Muslims and women are kept excluded. To maintain his dominance within the party and hide the failure of his government, Sarma is fond of airing anti-Muslim remarks. Such an anti-Muslim strategy protects upper-caste interests and pleases the RSS.

Sarma’s statement that he would work for the development of the Muslim community but would not seek Muslim votes is bizarre. By publically making anti-Muslim statements, Sarma is trying to equate the majority Hindus with the BJP and Congress with the minority Muslims. His statement is also in line with other Hindutva leaders who are notorious for threatening the Muslim community with disenfranchisement. For example, Muslims are often given a warning that if they give birth to more than two children, their voting rights will be withdrawn. A few years back, M. G. Vaidya, a top RSS leader, in The Indian Express (November 1, 2016), threatened Muslim voters with withdrawing their right to vote. As Vaidya spit venom, “those who do not want to be governed by Article 44 [the UCC] will forfeit their right to vote in the elections to the state legislature and Parliament”. Long back, Babasaheb Ambedkar cautioned against winning a majority on the communal ground but it seems that the Assam chief minister has very little regard for the architect of the Indian Constitution.

(Dr Abhay Kumar is an independent journalist. He has also taught political science at NCWEB Centres of Delhi University.) 


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