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Homecoming season 

Last Tuesday’s celebration of the Asom Gana Parishad’s 23rd birth anniversary was aimed at winning back the goodwill that the party once enjoyed.

Sanjib Baruah | October 20, 2008 1:01:10 am

Last Tuesday’s celebration of the Asom Gana Parishad’s 23rd birth anniversary was aimed at winning back the goodwill that the party once enjoyed. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s homecoming and the return of three breakaway factions, including his, are expected to reinvigorate the party.  

The leaders made the right noises: the new party chief spoke of the mistakes the party made while in power, including inattention to the implementation of the Assam Accord and its failure to expand its support among ethnic minorities. Words of regret, however, were not enough to satisfy many old supporters. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) remains adamantly opposed to Mahanta’s re-admission.  His re-entry became possible only after party leader Brindaban Goswami was ousted. Goswami stayed away from Tuesday’s festivities. 

Mahanta quit as AGP president in 2001, following the party’s electoral debacle, and amidst a sordid scandal of a bigamous relationship. He was expelled from the party in 2005. The appearance of complicity with the extra-judicial killings of innocent relatives of leading ULFA leaders during his tenure as chief minister branded him a “traitor” in AASU’s eyes.

The impetus for unification has come entirely from electoral considerations. Splits in the AGP have only helped the Congress and were a major factor in the AGP’s defeat in the 2001 and 2006.  The AGP has already come to a “tactical” understanding with the BJP. It would like to work out an alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) as well. 

The Supreme Court’s 2005 overthrow of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act radically changed the political scene. In the past, viewing political choices exclusively through the lens of security had often pushed the East Bengali-origin Muslims to seek the Congress’ protection.  The AUDF represents a new voice of confidence. 

The AGP has to face up to this new political reality. Consider the alliance with the BJP. Letting the BJP keep its seats in the refugee-dominated Bengali-speaking Barak Valley strongholds may appear to make electoral sense. But it cannot help build trust among the immigrant Muslim community.  

Assamese memories of Partition collide with those in the rest of the country.  Opposition to immigration from East Bengal began in the 1930s and shaped Assamese attitudes toward Partition. Once Sylhet is separated from Assam and it becomes a part of East Pakistan, it was hoped that Assam’s ethno-political balance would stabilise in favour of the locals. That did not happen.  

Yet until the Assam-specific amendment of Indian citizenship laws in 1986, the Assam Movement’s definition of a foreigner was consistent with the legal definition of Indian citizenship. However, it is possible that in their heart of hearts few Indians are willing to accept the idea that Hindu East Bengalis are foreigners in India, irrespective of their date of arrival. The BJP is only the most active proponent of this view. 

Despite the recent talk of the security risks emanating from India’s porous eastern border, the country is generally unwilling to hear about the failure of Partition in the east. Labelling the border international — and adding the qualifier “illegal” to describe one set of immigrants — did not suddenly stem the tide of poor people crossing the border. This relatively sparsely populated region, after all, was legally seen as a frontier, ie, open for new settlements, during colonial rule.  

The Congress’s Veerappa Moily has raised the possibility of another homecoming: that of Badruddin Ajmal. However, the AUDF’s working president Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury says that Ajmal was never a Congressman, and that the AUDF has a distinct “identity, character and ideology.” In the past chief minister Tarun Gogoi has resisted pressures from the party’s high command to make overtures towards Ajmal. His alliance with Hagrama Mahilary faction of the Bodoland People’s Progressive Front was an alternative strategy.  He walks a careful line between nurturing a credible alliance of ‘indigenous’ interests, and not losing further ground to Ajmal. It has allowed him to retain his upper Assam base. It is not accidental that the AGP’s current top leaders are almost all from lower Assam. 

Electoral calculations alone cannot end Assam’s troubles.  Nor can Assam deal with Partition’s failures all by itself. But a conversation on this subject is crucial for the future of Assam, and for a viable regional agenda. Figuring out the rules governing Indian citizenship and the cross-border movement of people is not up to Assam. It involves not only Assam and the Northeast, but the rest of the country, and perhaps others in the sub-continent as well. 

The writer is a political scientist at Bard College, New York

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