Assamese or ‘illegal migrant’? What ‘identity’ of people means to different parties ahead of polls

Who is an Assamese? Who isn’t? With a rising BJP sharpening divides that have long roiled the state, Here is what ‘identity’ means to different parties ahead of the elections.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Updated: March 28, 2016 7:11 am
assam elections, assam polls, assam bjp, assam congress, assam assembly polls, assam assembly elections, assam illegal immigrants, A Congress rally on the banks of the Brahmaputra. (Source: Dasarath Deka)

Us and Them. Not since the 1985 election, when the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) swept to power riding on the Assam Accord and promising to ‘rid’ the state of ‘illegal migrants’, have the lines been this stark.

This year, with the BJP seen to be a major player in Assam, this is an election fought on ‘identity’. Who is an Assamese? Who is an illegal immigrant? These are questions that have always roiled Assam, a state that has seen successive streams of migrants — from the times of the British, who got workers from the Chotanagpur plateau and adjoining areas to work as tea plantation workers; followed by a massive flow of what C S Mullan, a British Superintendent of the 1931 Census, had described as “land-hungry Bengali immigrants, mostly Muslims” from erstwhile East Bengal; to the present, when impoverished Bangladeshi migrants sneak past a porous border in the hope of a better life. It’s also a state that has a large number of indigenous ethnic communities, with at least 69 of them marked as Scheduled Tribes and 16 as Scheduled Castes.

This election, as the BJP faces off with the incumbent Congress and Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) emerges as a vital player in what’s largely a three-cornered fight, the issue of identity is emerging as a key electoral plank.

“Land alienation among indigenous people is a big problem. The questions of identity, language and culture, of the security of the Assamese, are all centred on that. It is a fact that Assamese speakers are no longer in a majority in Assam. The percentage of Muslims is also on the rise,” says Udayon Misra, former professor and head of English department at Dibrugarh University.

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Misra, however, points out that this is not the first election to be fought on “identity”. “Way back in 1946, the Congress had asked people to vote for the Congress to ensure a secure future for the Assamese people,” he says. That election, the Congress was fighting the Muslim League, which, headed by Maulavi Saiyid Sir Muhammad Saadullah, had formed the government thrice after 1937 in pre-Partition Assam.

However, says political analyst and author Sunil Pawan Baruah, “identity cannot be the sole issue affecting Assam”. “In this era of globalisation, constitutional safeguards alone cannot protect one’s identity; development is equally important. Political parties have deliberately made identity the focus of this election just to polarise and get votes,” he says.

‘Last Battle of Saraighat’ vs ‘Jai Ai Asam’

“We are clear about our election plank. What else but the threat to indigenous communities from Bangladeshi infiltration? Our fight is to protect these communities and ensure that the state becomes free of infiltrators,” says Sarbananda Sonowal, Union Minister of State of Youth Affairs and Sports, who is also president of the state BJP and now the party’s chief ministerial candidate.

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This is a subject close to Sonowal’s heart. It was his writ petition that led the Supreme Court in July 2005 to strike down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, or the IMDT Act of 1983, which, the court declared, was “ultra vires” to the Constitution of India. The Act, applicable only to Assam, was brought in by the then Congress government during the peak of the six-year-long movement led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) against illegal migrants. Among its many provisions was one that said that anybody settled in Assam before March 25, 1971, was a legal citizen, when, for the rest of India, the cut-off date is July 19, 1948. Critics of the Act said that instead of detecting Bangladeshi infiltrators, it only protected them.

Sonowal, who was then a Lok Sabha member of the AGP, was immediately hailed as a ‘jatiya nayak (a national hero)’. While Sonowal, also a former AASU president, shifted to the BJP in 2011, he continues to swear by the 113-page judgment of the Supreme Court, which said Assam “was facing external aggression and internal disturbance” because of illegal immigration and that it had made the lives of people “wholly insecure… thereby creating a fear psychosis”.

The BJP is projecting this election as “the last Battle of Saraighat”, the 1671 war fought on the Brahmaputra river in which the Assamese had defeated the Mughals.

Speaking to The Sunday Express at the BJP office in Ulubari, Guwahati, Sonowal says, “Our huge network of over 25 lakh volunteers will take the message of jati (nation) and mati (land) to every house, every family.” The party says it will ensure every leader and worker utters jati and mati several times before the voters — during rallies, speeches, discussions, on TV, road shows, etc. The party has also distributed pamphlets and booklets on the party’s rallying call. Besides, a social media team from Delhi has been brought in to run the party website and update its Twitter feeds.

The BJP has even shifted its office from the outskirts to Ulubari in the heart of the city. This is now the party’s election war room, where Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was till last year strategising for the Congress, holds fort with state BJP secretary Phani Sarma and state prabhari Mahendra Singh. The three hold daily briefings, including with the panel chosen to take part in television shows. They also issue contradictions and replies to various allegations and statements made by the Congress and AIUDF.

Less than 10 km from the BJP office, at Koinadhora, is the hilltop residence of Tarun Gogoi, three-time Chief Minister and incumbent who says he is ready with his response to the BJP’s identity politics. The Congress’s trump card, he says, is ‘regionalism’, the idea of the Assamese exception. This is a plank that the Congress has successfully wrested from the AGP, a party that once saw itself as the champion of regionalism. Congress leaders now mouth ‘Jai Aai Asam (Hail, Mother Assam)’, originally an AGP slogan of the AASU movement (1979-85), with even Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi giving it a shot — at a rally in Sivasagar last month, Gandhi fumbled thrice with the slogan, but pulled it off anyway.

“Who said regionalism is a copyright of the AGP? The Congress has fought for Assam’s rightful place in the country. It was the Congress which ensured Assamese was made the state language. It is the Congress that introduced autonomous councils for different tribal communities and development councils for every ethnic group,” says Gogoi.

“When I say Assamese nationalism, it includes all ethnic and linguistic groups of Assam. The Bodos have flourished because of us. Rabha, Tiwa, Mising, Deuri, Sonowal Kachari, Thengal Kachari, all ethnic groups, are happy that they have their own development councils. I have also set up such councils for those speaking Bengali and Hindi. Recently, I also set up a council for Brahmins. Every community is happy. That is Assamese nationalism,” he says.

Gogoi uses the regionalism card at every opportunity, portraying the BJP as a non-Assamese party that doesn’t understand the state and its culture. So when Sonowal touched Jaitley’s feet or when Himanta Biswa Sarma and other leaders touched the feet of BJP leaders, Gogoi made it a point to say that “touching feet was never part of Assamese tradition”.

Way back in the times of Dev Kanta Barooah (the Congress president during the Emergency and the man of the “India is Indira, Indira is India” fame), Congress politics in Assam depended heavily on the Muslim migrants, tea plantation workers and the Bengali Hindu migrants, a vote bank critics disparagingly dubbed Ali-Coolie-Bangali.

This combined vote-bank of the Congress got its first jolt in 1985 when the AGP got a majority of the indigenous people to vote for it while most voters of migrant origin chose the United Minorities Front (UMF), a Congress faction, reducing the Congress tally to an all-time low of 25 seats.

Similarly, the tea labourers — who largely have their roots in the Chotanagpur region (present-day Jharkhand, parts of Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Odisha) — who were traditionally with the Congress, shifted allegiance to the BJP in 2014. “The BJP, which has a strong base in these states, got RSS pracharaks from there to work among tea labourers, resulting in the BJP winning two Lok Sabha seats in 2014,” says Prasanta Rajguru, editor of Amar Asam, a leading Assamese daily.

The tea labourers have, over nearly two centuries, become inseparable from the larger Assamese community, occupying top posts in the government as well as in the Asam Sahitya Sabha and even in the Vaishnavite monasteries.

The Bengali Hindu voter also has a significant role. A sizeable section of them are Partition refugees from East Pakistan. They originally voted for the Congress, but in 1978 (post-Emergency), shifted loyalties to the CPI(M). In September 2015, the Centre decided to let minority refugees (read Hindus) from Bangladesh and Pakistan stay on in India even after the expiry of their visas. Most Bengali Hindus, however, are of ‘refugee’ origin and don’t have a visa or passport. Many of them are ‘D’ voters (with ‘doubtful’ citizenship status) and are debarred from voting.

The Congress, now left holding fragments of its original vote-bank, is confident its development record will see it through. “No other party has such a deep penetrating network of workers as we do. Our workers can take our message quickly to the voters. It is almost real-time,” claims PCC president Anjan Dutta.

There’s no evidence of such lighting action at Rajiv Bhavan, the state Congress HQ. All top leaders as well as most aspirants have been in Delhi for over a week, getting the first list finalised by the high command. “We will gear up in the next couple of days,” says Dutta, adding the party has a “multi-pronged strategy” to tell every individual voter about the “dangers” of voting for the BJP.

The third contender, and the one seeking that space

The AIUDF’s office in Hatigaon, a Muslim-majority pocket of Guwahati, is buzzing with activity as workers turn up to collect campaign materials. The party hopes to benefit from the polarisation that the BJP’s identity politics will bring about, sensing its best chance to raise its Assembly numbers from 18 in 2011 to “at least 25”, a number, party insiders say, will help it play kingmaker.

To do so, the party realises it has to not only reach out to every Muslim voter, but also expand its base to include the tea workers. They hope the tea workers, most of them Christians, will relate to their minority plank.

Badruddin Ajmal, the Mumbai-based perfume tycoon who heads the AIUDF, says he is ready to turn the identity debate on its head. “Identity? Whose identity? The world is fast changing and so is the concept of identity. Under-development is the biggest issue in Assam. Look at tribals, Muslims, tea labourers, the Scheduled Castes. Why are all of them so poor even after 69 years of Independence? And who was ruling for most of the time? Wasn’t it the Congress?” says Ajmal, speaking on phone while travelling from Guwahati to his hometown Hojai in the central Assam district of Nagaon.

The AIUDF was born on July 5, 2005, immediately after the Supreme Court struck down the IMDT Act of 1983, with its founder Ajmal saying the Congress had failed to protect the interests of ‘minorities’ with roots in erstwhile East Bengal and East Pakistan. The party was able to win 10 seats in the first Assembly election it contested in 2006, polling 9.03 per cent of the votes. Since then, its graph has steadily risen — it won one seat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections (16.10 per cent votes), 18 seats in the 2011 Assembly polls (12.57 per cent votes) and three Lok Sabha seats in 2014 (14.8 per cent votes).

With Muslims in a majority in 36 of Assam’s 126 Assembly seats, all in western and southern Assam, the AIUDF sees its best chance this election.

“I should not be unnecessarily accused of doing Muslim politics and more particularly targeting migrant Muslims. My party has tribals and SC MLAs. Currently, one of our Lok Sabha members is an SC (Radhey Shyam Biswas). Former Bihar governor and veteran Congress leader Devananda Konwar has joined us. We are going to field non-Muslim candidates in 18 to 20 constituencies of upper Assam. They taunt us, but didn’t the AGP have several ministers of migrant origin during both its terms?” asks Ajmal.

The AGP has few answers. Once a powerful regional force, the party, now hobbled by factionalism, has been reduced to a junior partner in the BJP-AGP-BPF alliance. Born out of the Assam agitation of 1979-85, this was the party that took the strongest position on identity and regionalism. With the BJP and Congress taking over both these issues, and with many of its top leaders joining the BJP, the AGP would have been almost finished had the BJP not taken it on board to prevent a split in the anti-Congress votes.

The AGP, which polled 34.54 per cent of the votes and formed a government within two months of its formation in 1985, and came to power a second time in 1996, is in poor shape now. Its vote share has declined sharply — from 20.2 per cent in the 2001 Assembly elections to 16.29 per cent in 2011, to just 3.8 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

At the AGP office in Ambari, Guwahati, AGP president Atul Bora contests Gogoi’s claims on regionalism. “Gogoi’s brand of regionalism gives away Rajya Sabha seats to the Manmohan Singhs and Sanjay Singhs (both became Rajya Sabha members from Assam). His brand of regionalism pits one community against another. His brand of regionalism percolates corruption down to the autonomous councils and panchayats. For us, regionalism is not a mere slogan. It means real Constitutional protection to the indigenous people, jobs for the sons of the soil, and equal development,” says Bora.

The migration story

The first wave of migration in Assam began with the discovery of tea in the early 19th century, with the British bringing in thousands of tribals — Bhils, Santhals, Oraons, Mundas and others from Bengal, Bihar and Odisha — to work in the plantations. Jayeeta Sharma, Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto and author of Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India, says, “By 1901, nearly 13 per cent of Assam’s population was born outside the region.”

Prior to that, in the last quarter of the 18th century, about two-thirds of Assam’s population was decimated due to Burmese invasions, natural calamities and pestilence.

The next wave came from erstwhile East Bengal when Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal presidency and merged Assam with East Bengal in 1905. That saw the migration of peasants from East Bengal to the fertile land of Assam.

There were two more waves of migration, one immediately after Partition (1947), when Hindus crossed over; and the next during the Bangladesh liberation movement, when lakhs fled the Pakistan army to take shelter in Assam.

Hundreds continue to sneak into India, most of them to Assam, even today.

The Muslims of Assam are largely of migrant origin and came during the time of Lord Curzon (1899-1905) under a programme called “grow more food”. To produce raw materials for the industries of England, the British brought Muslim labourers from East and West Bengal to grow jute, tea, rubber and rabi crops.

Who is an Assamese? Different definitions

1951 Census Report: “Indigenous person of Assam means a person belonging to the State of Assam and speaking the Assamese language or any tribal dialect of Assam…” Last year, Assam Assembly Speaker Pranab Gogoi consulted 50 groups and organisations, including AASU, and agreed to agree on this definition. But the Congress and AIUDF refused to let Gogoi table his recommendation in the Assembly, saying he had not taken the House into confidence.

Bhupen Hazarika: In 1968, in his famous song Aami Asamiya nahao dukhiya, Hazarika had stated that “every Indian, wherever he came from, who had settled down on the banks of the Brahmaputra and called this land his/her mother is an Assamese of the present times”. Both the BJP and the AGP play this song during their campaigns.

The government of Assam: It set up two Groups of Ministers, in 2006 and 2011, to firm up the definition. Both the GoMs, however, have not reached any conclusion yet.

Asam Sahitya Sabha: It believes that all Indian citizens who live in Assam and speak Assamese language as mother tongue or either their second or third language, irrespective of the places of their origin, ethnicity, caste or religion, are an inseparable part of the greater Assamese society.