Himanta Biswa Sarma: In this Assam poll, Bangladeshi immigrants want their own CM too

The former Congressman, now in charge of BJP's Assam campaign, identifies Badruddin Ajmal as the main opponent

Written by Sheela Bhatt | Updated: February 15, 2016 11:58 am
assam, assam elections, assam bjp, assam bjp campaign, assam congress, Badruddin Ajmal, Badruddin Ajmal assam, assam politics, india news The former Congressman, now in charge of BJP’s Assam campaign, Himanta Biswa Sarma (above) identifies Badruddin Ajmal as the main opponent

For the BJP, how is the situation on the ground?
It’s evolving. The state has been with the Congress for 15 years. Initially, it was believed it would be difficult to dislodge the Congress but after the Lok Sabha elections the perception has gradually changed. Now, I think the BJP is close to the majority mark. We will have to work for a month until we are actually in a majority.

How has your transition from Congress to BJP been?
I joined the BJP on August 28, 2015. I thought it would take a while to adjust but, because of the affection from leaders in Delhi and workers of Assam, I feel I have been in the party since the beginning. Amit Shah is a hands-on president, I can talk to him anytime. He doesn’t need time to understand our political perspectives. He asks the right questions, he is serious when talking and when listening. With Rahul Gandhi, when we talked about serious issues his pet dog would come between us. He would not pay attention, he showed no interest in understanding the complexities. I left the Congress because it was doing nothing serious on the issue of Assamese identity. And, there is a family rule in Assam that didn’t allow Congressmen any scope to grow.

The BJP has been trying to get ethnic groups together but there is no sign of any grand alliance happening; the AGP is sulking.
The BJP was never interested in a grand alliance, our cadres in Assam are not in favour of it. Under the advice of the central leadership and considering that tribals are very important in our society, we have entered into an alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front which has 12 MLAs. PM Narendra Modi has addressed a rally in Kokrajhar and Amit Shah is coming on February 10 to address a BPF rally. We will join hands with another tribal community, Tiwa, whose organisation controls some eight assembly seats. We will formalise an electoral alliance with them on February 10. Wherever we wanted an alliance, we are going ahead with it. With the AGP it’s a different ball game altogether. A large part of the AGP and a large part of the BJP do not want an alliance, only minor factions on both sides want it. They didn’t get any seats and their vote share reduced dramatically in the 2014 elections. An alliance with them was not on our original agenda but we still have some contact with the AGP and talks are on, but we don’t know if workers and voters will accept the alliance or not.

Do you think Sarbananda Sonowal’s announcement as a CM candidate is a bit premature?
See, he successfully led the party in the Lok Sabha elections. He was made the president of the party in the state. The workers expected it and there was no surprise in it.

Did you agree with the decision?
I am just 46 years old. I was in the Congress since 1992. In the BJP I am just four months old. What I could demand within the Congress, I can’t ask of the BJP. It’s neither political nor logical to expect anything. There was no competition from the very beginning. For me the main issue is very different. Assam is facing a deep-rooted identity crisis. The Assamese people, Indian-origin Assamese, are becoming a minority in Assam. We are almost on the verge of losing our majority. We will certainly lose everything in 20 years. This time the Assam election is not about individuals, Sonowal or Sarma or Gogoi. It’s about Assam’s place in India and the Assamese people’s identity in the country.

It’s been said that Badruddin Ajmal of the AIUDF will be a kingmaker in the election.
No, he wants to be king. He thinks if the Congress gets less than a majority, he will be able to become chief minister with the help of the Congress. The Congress may help him but we are opposed to Ajmal’s politics. If the AIUDF wins power, Assam will lose its identity and culture.

Ajmal is an Indian national.
You are talking about a law. I don’t doubt Ajmal’s citizenship. But the people he is representing, the people AIUDF is promoting, are people of Bangladeshi origin. I am not talking about nationality in the eyes of the law. 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. After seeing the Upamanyu Hazarika report, even the Supreme Court has said that within 20 years Assam will have a majority of Bangladeshi-origin people…

Isn’t there a cutoff for being counted as an Indian citizen?
Whoever came to Assam after 1951 and before 1971, under the Assam Accord, they are given citizenship. This very part of the Assam Accord has been challenged in the Supreme Court. The division bench was asking, instead of giving them citizenship, why couldn’t they have been given refugees status? That matter has now been referred to a constitution bench. The same Assam Accord states that while giving them citizenship we will give constitutional protection to original citizens of Assam. That part of the Accord (clause 6) was never implemented. Due to non-implementation of this clause the AIUDF is getting votes. If the “constitutional protection clause” was implemented then AIUDF could not even have contested elections… We know they are Indian citizens but we are challenging the very law that gave them citizenship.

Ajmal was born in Assam, right?
Ajmal is from Sylhet district of Assam. I am not making a personal issue here. He is a respected member of parliament. Many of his MLAs and supporters got Indian citizenship because of the Assam Accord. I am talking about rights and privileges, future and identity of original Indian people of Assam.

Ajmal has claimed that his party will get 30 to 35 seats. How do you see that challenge?
I do agree in a different way. See, the situation in Assam today is such that Ajmal can make a claim on 35 seats! That means in 35 seats already Indian people have become a minority. That is the cause of concern. How many seats he will get or not get is not my worry.

I will argue further. Ajmal is Indian and those voting for him are Indians, so…
You are again and again taking the position of law but that law is challenged. Those who came from 1951 to 1971 will vote because they are now citizens but we feel that clause should not have been there… I agree that AIDUF leaders are Indians but can’t we change the law?

If you go abroad, you will see immigrants becoming presidents and prime ministers.
Those in America and other places people entered legally. Barack Obama did not enter America illegally. Here they came illegally and post- migration they were regularised. I am taking a humanitarian approach. Let them prosper socially and economically. But, if in J & K, in Himachal Pradesh and in Tripura there is protection, then why not for the original people of Assam?

What will be your political pitch be in those 34 districts where the AIUDF is strong?
In those 34 seats the BJP will certainly put up candidates. There is another issue. See, there are large numbers of illegal infiltrators who came after 1971. There is an exercise going on under National Register of Citizens. Once it’s done the BJP wants to see that these infiltrators are detected and deported. The BJP accepts citizenship of these illegal people who came between 1951 and 1971 but, at the same time, we want constitutional protection as promised under the Assam Accord. This is a must. There is consensus across political parties that clause 6 should be implemented.

Don’t you think in your politics you should differentiate between Indian Muslims of Assam and those who came after 1951 from Bangladesh?
Oh, no, no… That is why I am repeatedly arguing about Assamese origin, Indian origin. Other people who came from Bangladesh are different. Bengali Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Sikhs are part of Assamese society… On that point there is no doubt at all.

All said and done, Ajmal is an Indian Muslim.
Again you are confusing. He is originally a Bangladeshi Muslim. If you ask me only about Badruddin it will be difficult for me to argue.

I mean, his politics. He is an Indian Muslim and has the right to pursue his politics.
I don’t want to talk about an individual Badruddin and I don’t know his date of birth and from where he came or didn’t come. In August 1985 the agreement was signed between (Rajiv Gandhi’s) government and AASU… Protection was to be given to Assamese people so that they don’t lose their identity.

These are old issues. Are people not worried about dal-roti and unemployment?
No, no, no. In Assam dal-roti will come second. People are concerned… We are facing an existential crisis.

It has been said that the BJP will try to polarise opinion.Assam is a different state. Elections are not on communal lines. It’s about people wanting to preserve their Indian identity, their Assamese culture. The election will be divided on those lines. We will fight tooth and nail against the politics of the AIUDF… The Assam election of 2016 is BJP versus AIUDF, Congress is not in the battlefield. The issue of deporting illegal migrants is a state subject. The Congress government led by Tarun Gogoi has not done anything. We want our government in the state so that with help of the Centre we can find illegal Bangladeshi residents and deport them. With the help of our tribal allies, we will win Assam on the issue of Assamese identity.