In Assam’s fascinating demographics, everyone is a minority. But education and opportunity are challenging this collective grievance. Why and how the BJP-RSS still don’t get it.
If you’ve known Assam’s third term chief minister Tarun Gogoi for any length of time, you’d know him as an interviewer’s nightmare. Cautious and tongue tied, rarely completing a full sentence, or expressing a coherent thought, and not only if you were a non-Assamese speaker. His English is actually fine, even better now that he has a new British daughter-in-law.
At 78, however, he is a changed man. So full of energy, so voluble, bursting with laughter, even giggling, in fact so youthful as to justify his first name. He cannot stop talking, pulling out spread-sheets, excel sheets, letters, all to show what a wonderful job he has done as chief minister. In what should probably be his last term as chief minister, in spite of his popularity, he can afford to preen. “See my shopping malls,” he says, “every brand is there. Somebody is buying them. Somebody must have the money to buy them. Who can deny that my state is booming?” In many ways, it is.
Assam’s growth rate in many areas compares robustly with Gujarat and Bihar. Its farm sector has had a Madhya Pradesh-like revival, making it paddy surplus. If success in the state was a determinant of a leader’s ability, he is the Congress party’s Narendra Modi. Except, it isn’t in the Congress culture to acknowledge this. He is also doing brilliantly well in this election. Assam is the only state the Congress is tipped to dominate, defying the pan-national disaster staring at them. But it is because he is so overwhelmed with the prospect of success that it is tempting to startle him.
“Tarun da, you must really feel the weight of very special responsibility on your shoulders,” I ask, deadpan.
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“Why do you ask? We will win this election. It is going so well,” he says.
“Dada, if the NDTV opinion poll, which predicts 13 seats out of 14 for Congress in Assam, is accurate, as it might be,” I tell him, now cheekily, “you must realise that you have the onerous responsibility of delivering to your party more seats than might Uttar Pradesh and Bihar”.
For once, the old fox is at a loss for words. He cannot contradict this, nor can he endorse this. And definitely, he does not want to say, don’t trust opinion polls. “No, no, no, don’t say like this. Our party will do well everywhere,” for once, he is brief in a response. And if he tries to suppress a faint smile of satisfaction, it doesn’t work. At this moment at least, he won’t exactly get 10 upon 10 for his acting skills. Now you know what we meant yesterday when we talked about why Gogoi is delighted to have his leg pulled.
He is thrilled also that his son, Gourav, who went for a masters of public administration from New York University in . and found his bride, Elizabeth, there too, has reluctantly agreed to join politics and contest from Kaliabor which is as much a borough for the Gogois as Amethi and Rae Bareli are for the Gandhis. He is teaching his son politics, and some spoken Assamese as well. There are already jokes about his babalog Assamese. The most popular and authentic: he wanted to teach his constituents about scientific fishing, and the need for fish of both genders in their ponds: mota (male) macha (pronounced masa) and maike (female) macha. He checked with somebody, who did not know he was going to be talking of fish, who told him that “maike” was a little bit crude, maybe like you’d say chhokri. So junior Gogoi was careful. He advised his farmers to have a good balance of mota masa and mahila masa. It’s a brilliantly funny story, much like Rajiv’s “haarenge ya loosenge” but unlike that, will have zero adverse impact on the election. It should be in his pocket. This is why father Gogoi is doubly thrilled.
Why does Gogoi keep winning in a state where Congressmen were once vermin? My colleague, Samudra Gupta Kashyap, has watched the scene closely as an activist student and journalist now — he was barely out of college in 1981-83, when I would drag him along to help me converse with mostly Assamese-speaking AASU leaders in their hostels. He has a very succinct argument: “Gogoi has given the Congress government a human face, unlike Hiteswar Saikia who had given it a criminal face”. He has been accessible to friend and foe, willing to do anybody a favour and is never vindictive. In this sense, he and Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Haryana are quite similar. He has also reached out and successfully negotiated with the ULFA, thereby ending the culture of encounters. In fact, it is an unusual situation where it is the regional party, the AGP, which is being asked angry questions about the phenomenon of gupta-hatya (secret killings) under Mahanta’s watch.
But do not underrate the impact of Assam’s fascinating demographics and how smartly Gogoi has leveraged them. Assam, more than any other part of India, comes truest to the principle that in any diverse electorate, the sum of all insecure minorities is greater than a divided majority. And in Assam, everybody is a minority. How, we learn from Nani Gopal Mahanta, a professor at Guwahati University.
He and his group of academics surveyed Assam’s 1.87 crore electorate in 2011 and came up with this break-up (all figures in lakhs): Muslims 57, tea garden labourers 22.45, Bengali Hindus 23, Bodos 10 and the rest Assamese, including assorted tribals and Scheduled Castes. But then it gets more complicated. Six of the large Assamese-speaking groups, Ahoms (12), Koch-Rajbangshi (9), Chutia (5), Motock (4) and the strong tea labour group all want tribal status. That reduces the caste-Hindu Assamese to a very large minority. It is now divided between BJP, AGP and the Congress, in that order. That’s why Gogoi is giggling in spite of the threat from perfume king Badruddin Ajmal’s party (really the Assam unit of Jamiat) of taking away a lot of the Muslim vote.
Nani represents the new generation of Assamese intellectuals who aren’t just spilling grievances and complaints rather than facts and analysis. He speaks in pain of how Assam’s people have been divided, starting with the British and their inheritors, self-taught anthropologist Verrier Elwin and, and I add that with trepidation, Nehru, who perpetuated the same idea. It was to define tribes sharply in terms of their traditional practices and customs, rule that they were incapable (even undeserving) of modernisation, and to preserve them. Edward Albert Gait, who wrote his famous A History of Assam, Nani says, started the book by saying Assam has no history.
He draws inspiration from liberal scholar Mahmood Mamdani (who some of us would know as film-maker Mira Nair’s erudite husband) and an expression immortalised by him: define and rule. “We have all been defined, sort of indefinitely, in terms of our customs, practices and identities,” he says. Time, and increasing inward-migration have meanwhile passed them by, and also outnumbered them. Nani says a solution will have to be found, and maybe one already has been tested successfully: in Tripura where tribal anxieties have been answered by reserving 31 per cent of the seats (conforming with their current population percentage) in the state assembly. Could such a thing be contemplated for the ethnic Assamese? A counter-question would be: how do you define who is Assamese now, and because they are mostly not tribal, what provision of the Constitution can you use to give them special status?
You want to see how differently a politician would look at the same data, you talk to Himanta Biswa Sarma, the young minister for health and education. I say this carefully, but he is truly among the brightest, pragmatic and problem-solving new generation politicians in India. For him these “theoretical” solutions will not work. What will work, instead, is old fashioned politics and economics.
Everybody complained about the increase in Muslim population because of migration and their supposedly high birth rates, he says. But today Assam’s birth rate is exactly the same as the national figure: 2.4. It’s happened because of education and economic opportunity. That’s the way to go, not complex new laws that end up creating more new problems rather than solve the chronic ones.
Or you listen to an idealist who lives happily in the no-man’s land between activist idealism and realpolitik. Alaka Desai Sarma, now vice-president of the AGP, greets me like a long-lost friend, and she is right. It is just that my memory had faded. She was a young journalist, a member, actually of a group of idealistic young reporters in the early eighties who worked for (now sadly defunct) Himmat magazine run by Rajmohan Gandhi (yes, now the AAP candidate from East Delhi). Other members of that redoubtable team included Sanjoy Hazarika, Shahnaz Anklesaria (now Aiyar), Neerja Chowdhury, Kalpana Sharma and Rupa Chinai, all of whom grew into respected bylines of our times. I was also reminded of when Rajmohan Gandhi honoured me with a visit to my home in Shillong along with his friend and local, Khasi politician and sometime minister Stanley Nichols-Roy, and invited me to his centre in Panchgani. In those times, intrigue was always in the Northeastern air. He and his group were seen as supporters of the various ethnic movements in the region, and the widely circulated innuendo among the Congress, Left and indeed the intelligence community was that Gandhi and Himmat were some kind of a CIA-funded operation through the Moral Rearmament Army, renamed Initiatives for Change (to whose centre I was invited). I politely declined. Those were rough, conspiratorial times. But as I got to know the region, and the Himmat group better, I can only tell you all those rumours and suspicions were terrible, terrible disinformation. They were among the most patriotic and sensitive Indians you would find, and so what if their approach was radically different from that of Giani Zail Singh (then home minister).
Sanjay was the only Asomiya in this group, and Alaka, a Gujarati, chose to become one. She fell in love with AASU leader, and my friend Nagen Sarma and married him. He was the minister we mentioned in the first part of this series on Friday who was killed by an ULFA bomb.
Alaka has filled in for Nagen at the AGP and teaches management at a private university. She is also most clinically perceptive in explaining what has gone wrong with the AGP. After the first crop of leaders that rose from the movement, “we have never built a new generation”, she says, even as she ruefully admits to the loss of the old idealism among many old-timers. Just how serious the problem is, you understand when you chat with Samujjal Bhattacharyya, advisor, and the most visible face of today’s AASU. He is 48 years old! He too is disillusioned with the AGP, so I ask him why won’t he carry out a coup or at least challenge the even older leadership? I am not convinced he, a nice guy, has the stomach for it. Nor do the people of Assam for any more agitation. Samujjal underlines this: “We haven’t called a bandh for seven years now. Nobody would dare to. People simply do not want to be reminded of the days of the agitation.”
But Alaka has brought back the same years to me and as I reflect on why the AGP is declining and why the BJP, while moving into its space, isn’t credibly challenging the Congress, I am reminded of a long forgotten conversation. I find it in my only remaining copy of my juvenile, and now, mercifully out-of-print 1984 book Assam: A Valley Divided. On page 121, it talks about that conversation with K. Sudarshan, yes, later RSS Sarsanghchalak but then its bauddhik pramukh (intellectual chief). He visited me in my tiny room hotel at Guwahati’s Nandan Hotel after the first few days of killings in the election of February, 1983. He had come flying in because they were so intrigued that the Assamese mobs were slaughtering both kinds of migrants, Bengali Muslims as well as Hindu. I quote from my own printed work: “Sudershan, along with his four key functionaries from Assam, sat in my hotel room in Guwahati in a mournful mood and bitterly criticised the Assamese for refusing to make a distinction between Muslim ‘infiltrators’ and Hindu ‘refugees’”. He was particularly upset about the killings of Hindus in Khoirabari near Goreswar and Silapathar in Demaji district. The refrain was, “Hindu toh arakshit hai (the Hindu is unprotected)”. It is amazing, how three decades later, the BJP and RSS are still unable to rid themselves of the same unworkable, wishful nuance in Assam. Hindus are still refugees and only Muslims infiltrators though Modi has now put a slightly more contemporary spin on it saying that while Hindu “refugees” must be protected the entire country should share that responsibility not just Assam. But it will still not work. Over so many decades, the BJP is unable to crack the intellectual myth that religion is the main determinant of identity in India’s most diverse state. It continues to hope that religion will reunite what language and culture divided. That’s why the Gogois and Himantas are so smug.
Kashyap reminds me of what the Assamese think of visiting reporters when we stop at Nellie and he calls it the usual journalistic pilgrimage. I know the joke is on me, and, frankly I agree with him. But for me, it is still a kind of pilgrimage. And not because of that February 1983 morning that defies description, which I spent counting the thousands of dead, the dying, the walking wounded as a reporter for this newspaper and then rushing back to Guwahati to find the crew of the last Indian Airlines flight to take back my rolls, my blood-smeared white shirt, particularly on rolled up sleeves from helplessly trying to comfort some walking wounded, parting the crowd quickly. It was because of a repeat visit in May, working not on a story of mine but helping my teacher Arun Shourie with an investigation he was carrying out on what went wrong, why did the worst single-day’s massacre in the republic’s history (to date) happen, could it be prevented. It is a more involved story for another day, and should be best told by Arun. So let me not explain how we found out that in the log-book of the police station at Nowgong there lay the evidence, or what Arun called the smoking gun: a wireless message sent by the SHO (or OC as they say in Assam) warning the higher ups that a mob of armed Lalung tribals was gathering around the Nellie region and forces should be sent to prevent a massacre.
That evening in May, I drove to Nowgong. It was dark by the time I reached the police station. The OC, Zahiruddin Ahmed, was not there. But somebody said he had recently turned very religious and gone quiet. He felt the guilt of failing to prevent the terrible massacre and was probably in the nearby mosque.
I walked there, and found a lone bearded, Maulana-like figure hunched in prayer. I sat next to him in anticipation rather than prayer or contemplation as well. Once I caught his eye, I told him the purpose of my visit. I am not sure whether he already had tears in his eyes, or I caused him to cry. He said, son, I would never betray a police secret. But you have asked me in a masjid, and somebody must be punished for the death of 3,500 Muslims, so come with me.
He walked me back to the police station and opened that log-book. Remember, this was 1983. It was impossible to find a photocopier in Nowgong and who’d let you take the log book out anyway. So I exposed two full films in my Minolta with an ordinary lens while he held the log-book open with one hand and the wire holding a tiny light-bulb in the quivering other. It is that facsimile that was published on the cover of India Today, with Arun Shourie’s story where he had generously acknowledged me. And am I being irresponsible now in revealing a source? Arun and I have discussed this. OC Ahmed passed away more than a decade ago. His son, I believe teaches at a college. His was a story of heroism, not betrayal. It must now be told.
Postscript: At Nellie, Mohammed Nur Islam, 59, the Maulvi of a new mosque tells us about watching his mother getting killed in Alisinga, in the same cluster of villages. For a moment I shiver, where was she among the heaps of bodies I counted. But he tells you a story of resilience and revival. Two of his six children now work in Chennai and Kerala, respectively. His oldest daughter is pursuing post-graduation in Islamic studies in Shimoga. Other children are all studying — two of his other daughters, science, at a junior college. What happened in 1983 was politics, he says, you have to move on. He speaks Assamese, but is originally a Bengali, from Mymensinghia stock in Bangladesh which has been reviled and stereotyped for nearly a century for its land-hunger and illegal migration: “wheresoever the carcass, there the vultures will be gathered… whither there is vacant land, thither goes the Mymensinghia,” wrote C.S. Mullen, the British Census chief in 1931 and it became an inspiration for the anti-foreigner movement. Today, the same Mymensinghias at Nellie have outlived the massacre, stayed put, rebuilt their life and their children are definitely doing better than those of the Lalung tribals across the new highway who came that day with swords and spears and carried out a pogrom without comparison before or after, and for which nobody has ever been punished. So also add resilience to the remarkable qualities of the Mymensinghia.