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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Explained: Why political parties are invoking rhinos in Assam

Assam elections: It is common for every party contesting in Bokakhat and Kaliabor, the two constituencies that cover most of Kaziranga, to say that they will protect the rhino.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Edited by Explained Desk | Guwahati |
Updated: March 30, 2021 6:55:22 am
Assam, Assam rhinos, Assam elections, Indian ExpressFor long, rhinos have been an emotive issue for the people of Assam. (PTI Photo/File)

With the BJP frequently invoking Assam’s world-famous one-horned rhino to connect with the people of the state, the animal has now become a part of poll rhetoric, with promises to save “the pride of Assam”.

Recently, at a rally in Bokakhat, the constituency under which a major part of the Kaziranga National Park falls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused the Congress of nurturing poachers who kill rhinos, and said the BJP has curbed the menace.

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Pride of Assam

For long, rhinos have been an emotive issue for the people of the state. “The projection of rhino as the pride of Assam began during the Assam Movement (1979-85),” says Kaustubh Deka, Assistant Professor, Political Science, Dibrugarh University.“Popular culture, including a number of Bihu songs on the rhino, further built on this.”

Uttam Saikia, an honorary wildlife warden of Kaziranga, says people of Assam are emotionally attached to the rhino. “Especially when a rhino is killed,” he adds. “Earlier, people would not find out about it but now, with social media, it immediately becomes news.”

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Political plank

Deka says rhino started emerging as a player in the political narrative of Assam as “its poaching was linked to the control of indigenous people over land, resources and influx of immigrants”. “While empirically it may not be true, somehow it was clubbed with that.”

This has been especially true of the BJP’s political campaigns. “While statistically poaching has come down, you cannot really say whether the government should be credited, or numerous NGOs which have been working actively on the ground to raise awareness,” says Saikia.

Several cases of rhino poaching in Kaziranga were reported in the years leading up to 2013. The highest figures in a decade were in 2013 and 2014, with 27 incidents each year. The figure decreased to 17 in 2015 and 18 in 2016. In 2017 and 2018, there were six incidents while 2019 reported three incidents. “In 2020, there were two cases and there have not been any cases so far in 2021,” said a senior park official, adding that the figures had drastically reduced in the last two years. According to the rhino census of 2018, there are 2,413 rhinos in Kaziranga alone.

Deka says the rhino is now seen as an “Assamese resource” and rhino protection as a “sign of good governance.” “If a government is able to protect sanctuaries and national parks, it is seen as control over law and order.”

Challengers this election

It is common for every party contesting in Bokakhat and Kaliabor, the two constituencies that cover most of Kaziranga (the park spreads over six constituencies), to say that they will protect the rhino.

However, this year, there is a departure from the traditional election rhetoric as local, regional players have entered the scene — Raijor Dal and independent land rights activist, Pranab Doley (who is backed by the Congress-led Mahajoth), who are not just speaking about the preservation of the rhino, but also about the land rights of the locals, which are often ignored as the Park extends in area, with new additions added to it. When the park was first notified in January 1974, it measured 430 square kilometres. With nine new “additions”, the park is now 914 square kilometres, with the latest three additions, notified in September by the state government. As a result, it is often said that local communities, living in the fringes of the park, get evicted at the cost of rhino preservation.

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