Bharat Chandra Saikia, 42, has a very difficult responsibility. He took over Kobaikota satra — one of 800-odd monasteries set up since Srimanta Sankaradeva began his Vaishnavite movement in Assam in the 16th century — after his father satradhikar Ghanashyam Saikia Medhi died in 2005.
The problem is not taking charge but the way the demography of Kobaikota village, about 125 km from Guwahati, has changed in the past three decades. Over 100 Assamese Hindu families who had lived there for generations have left for other places for fear of an “ever increasing” number of Muslims.
“There were a number of incidents of intimidation, theft, burglary and other crimes from surrounding villages after the Nellie massacre of 1983. While all 100-odd families left, some selling off their land at throwaway prices, my father decided to stay back because he was in charge of the satra,” said Saikia, whose family is the only one that remains, and continues to look after the satra. “We have not faced any threats or other problems yet,” he said.
Kobaikota satra, which had several bighas of land, is today left with less than two kathas on which the satra’s naam-ghar stands. “That too would have gone but for then Assam State Museum director R D Choudhury, who got us funds for a boundary wall,” Saikia said. A tank covering about 2 bighas, which belonged to the satra, is now partially filled up, a madrasa coming up on the filled portion.
In an election in which the BJP and its allies have made Assamese identity an issue, satras facing encroachment by suspected immigrants have become a focus area. It is an issue that matters to most Assamese Hindus, because every family is affiliated to one or the other of the satras spread across the state. Narendra Modi on Saturday became the first PM to visit Majuli, epicentre of Assamese Vaishnavite culture with over 30 satras.
“Over 7,000 bighas belonging to 39 satras are under encroachment. Since the satras are at the centre of Assamese culture, it is very important for every party to address this,” said Jitendra Nath Pradhani, satradhikar of Ramraikuthi Satra, who also heads the apex body Asam Satra Mahasabha. A study by Northeast Policy Institute in 2012 found over 5,500 bighas belonging to 26 satras encroached upon by people of doubtful origin.
Less than 4 km from Kobaikota is Bardowa satra, birthplace of Sankaradeva. “Over 60 bighas of Bardowa satra is under encroachment,” said Devananda Deva Goswami, vice-president of Bardowa Thaan Management Committee. “The Assam Accord of 1985 provides for protection of satras but no government seems interested.”
Actor Angurlata Deka, BJP candidate for Batadrava, and Congress candidate Gautam Bora both say satra institutions should be protected. “But no party, including AGP and BJP, have anything specific about it in their manifestoes,” said Jatin Barua, assistant secretary of the management committee.
In the Congress, there is disagreement on the extent of the threat. “Land-grabbing is a myth created by the BJP to stir up religious sentiments,” said CM Tarun Gogoi. In 2010, however, minister V Narayanswamy had told Rajya Sabha that land of several satras was under encroachment. “The Congress, which protects Bangladeshi migrants’ interests, would obviously deny encroachment,” said the BJP’s CM candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal.
R D Choudhury, former director-general of National Museum, the first to initiate steps to protect satra institutions back in 1986 (when he was Assam State Museum director ), blames the government as well as Asam Satra Mahasabha. “Those who run the satras have failed to exert collective pressure on the government,” he said.
In 1997, lawyer and activist Kuntala Deka won a Gauhati High Court asking the government to protect satras from encroachers. “I sent a report to the Union home secretary 15 years ago seeking protection of satra land, especially in areas now dominated by the immigrant Muslim population,” he said.
BJP campaign committee convener Himanta Biswa Sarma points at Batadrava and says, “Things have come to such a pass that no one can think of winning Batadrava, Sankaradeva’s birthplace, without the blessings of AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal.”