Targeting ‘outsiders’

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi dances as he arrives to address an election campaign rally at Joyrapar in Sivasagar, Assam, on March 28. Photo: PTI

Activists of the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) protesting the failure of the Congress government to stop the influx of Bangladeshis in Assam, on August 4, 2008. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

IN Assam, Gujarat figured prominently in the electioneering. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and his party showcased the “Gujarat model” of development to woo voters, the Congress and other parties bombarded the Modi model with statistics to punch holes in it. Apart from dubbing the “Gujarat model” as one that favoured big industrialists and corporate houses, the Congress and other non-BJP parties made the riots of 2002 and the marginalisation of Muslims in Gujarat their major election plank to woo the minority voters.

The “Gujarat model” had some impact on the urban middle-class voters in the State, and dominated their political discourse in the run-up to the election. However, the majority of rural voters were more concerned about how their elected representatives would redress their grievances.

The Congress party in Assam remained largely unaffected by the campaign by the BJP about the scams during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, with corruption remaining an issue confined to urban middle-class voters. Rural voters were unable to correlate these scams to the development deficits in their villages.

Fully aware that the “Gujarat model” would not make much of an impact on the voters, the Sangh Parivar devised a strategy of playing the Hindu card while raking up the illegal migrants issue with the aim of polarising voters.

Playing on the fear among the indigenous Assamese population, both tribal and non-tribal, of being reduced to a minority by illegal Bangladeshi migrants, Modi in his rallies in the State called on the Indian government to provide shelter to Bangladeshi Hindus, who, he alleged, were forced to leave the neighbouring country owing to religious persecution. At the same time, he promised that if the BJP was voted to power, it would drive out all post-1971 “Bangladeshi infiltrators”, who, he said, had come to Assam without valid travel documents. The apparent message was that a BJP-led government at the Centre would treat only Bangladeshi Muslims as infiltrators and drive them out while allowing Bangladeshi Hindus to stay back. He sought to stoke the anger of the youth in the State by saying that their jobs and livelihood had been taken away by “Bangladeshi infiltrators”.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and his party carefully articulated their position on the issue of Bangladeshi Hindus coming to Assam owing to alleged religious persecution by saying that if anyone from Bangladesh, whether Hindu, Buddhist or from any other religion, had been forced to leave that country owing to persecution, then his or her case should be treated by the Indian government with humanitarian considerations. He, however, said that his government was committed to driving out all post-1971 illegal migrants in accordance with the Assam Accord.

The stand of the majority of the Assamese people all along has been that all illegal Bangladeshi migrants, irrespective of whether they are Hindus or Muslims, who entered Assam after March 25, 1971, should be detected and expelled to Bangladesh, after their names are deleted from the electoral rolls, as stipulated in the Assam Accord.

With the BJP gaining support among the Assamese people because of the decline of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)’s influence, a large section of the electorate seems to have accepted the BJP line of not treating Bangladeshi Hindus as “illegal migrants” or “foreigners” and treating Bangladeshi Muslims as “illegal migrants”, or “infiltrators”.

Data from the 2001 Census show that the percentage of Assamese speakers declined from 57.81 per cent of the population in 1991 to 48.80 per cent. On the other hand, the percentage of Bengali speakers increased from 21.67 per cent to 27.54 per cent. Data from the 2011 Census are yet to be made public.

The All Assam Students Union (AASU) voiced its opposition to Modi’s statement and reiterated its stand that all post-1971 illegal migrants, both Hindus and Muslims, must be driven out from Assam.

In a bid to neutralise the opposition to the BJP’s approach of differentiating illegal migrants on the basis of religion, Narendra Modi pitched for all the States in India to share the burden of providing shelter to Bangladeshi Hindus and said that Assam should not be made to shoulder the burden alone.

The AGP, however, castigated the BJP for its “communal” approach on the illegal migrants issue and voiced its strong opposition to distinguishing illegal migrants on religious lines.

Muslims account for about 30 per cent of the total population in Assam. Of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the State, Muslim voters play a crucial role in at least six. But the Muslim population in Assam is not homogeneous; it includes pre-Partition migrants, post-Partition migrants from the erstwhile East Pakistan, and post-1971 illegal migrants from Bangladesh besides Assamese Muslims. The immigrant Muslim settlers have been returning Assamese as their mother tongue in successive Censuses and their children study in Assamese-medium schools even though they speak Bengali at home.

With the BJP playing the Hindu card in the illegal migrants issue, the State witnessed a consolidation of Muslim votes against the BJP. Both the Congress and the Maulana Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) hoped to benefit from the polarisation. The Congress believed this polarisation would help it regain the support base it had lost to the AIUDF. The AIUDF expected the anti-Congress mood across the country and the polarisation of Muslim votes to benefit it at least in two seats, thereby helping it increase its tally from the one seat it won in 2009.

Efforts were made by a section of Muslim elite to ensure that Muslim votes were not split so that the BJP candidates could be defeated. The Char-Chapori Sahitya Parishad, a literary body working to spread Assamese literature among Char (sand isles formed in the course of the river Brahmputra) dwellers, distributed around 5,000 copies of the “people’s manifesto”, appealing to the voters to defeat BJP/ National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidates and to vote for United Progressive Alliance (UPA) or Third Front candidates. “The anti-Muslim rhetoric of Modi and the Sangh Parivar had a negative impact on Muslims in Assam and this will benefit both the Congress and the AIUDF,” said Hafiz Ahmed, president of the Char-Chapori Sahitya Parishad and convener of the All India Secular Forum, Assam Chapter.

The AIUDF is an ally of the UPA at the Centre although it is the principal opposition party in Congress-ruled Assam. Even though the two parties have contested against each other in the State in this election, the choice of AIUDF candidates for some seats triggered a speculation that the Congress and the AIUDF had reached a tacit understanding to defeat the BJP.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the AIUDF snatched a big chunk of the immigrant Muslim votes away from the Congress. This helped the BJP to wrest the Gauhati and Silchar Lok Sabha seats from the Congress to double its tally from two seats in 2004 to four seats in 2009. The consolidation of Muslim votes against the BJP and the split in non-Congress votes between the AGP and the BJP seem to have given the Congress an edge this time.

Sushanta Talukdar

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