“Just like this empty office, the promises of the BJP are also empty,” said the candidate on a live Facebook video stream, standing beside a banner that featured Prime Minister Modi and BJP President Amit Shah.
The man was Upamanyu Hazarika, who is contesting on an independent ticket for the prestigious Guwahati Lok Sabha seat that goes to vote on April 23.
Since 1999, BJP’s Bijoya Chakraborty has won this seat three times. To defend it this election, the party has fielded businesswoman and former mayor of Guwahati, Queen Ojha. Up against her is Congress’s 52-year-old Bobbeeta Sharma, a TV personality whose long-running show on Doordarshan Guwahati Bidexot Apun Manuh made her a household name among the Assamese. Both Ojha and Sharma have contested Assembly elections before.
So where does 53-year-old Hazarika, a former Supreme Court lawyer, feature in what is pegged to be a straight fight between the two women?
“As the voice of the khilonjiya, the indigenous,” he says. Hazarika is fighting this election by making illegal infiltration — an electoral issue that has dominated Assam for decades now — his main campaign peg. Among the promises in his manifesto, which he is distributing through a door-to-door campaign, is a re-verification of NRC, reservation for indigenous Assamese and opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. “Our main leaders ran away, the NRC is a big mess. The Congress said they would fight migrants, but instead they started reaching out to them. The BJP came to power on the Jaati-Maati-Bheti plank, but the same people whom Narendra Modi said have to pack their bags and leave, sit in his rallies.” “Khilonjiya first,” or “Indigenous first” is Hazarika’s campaign slogan.
“Are we not khilonjiyas?” asks BJP’s Ojha, who was earlier a part of the AGP. “I have spent six years on the road protesting during the years of the Assam Agitation. Suddenly this man has appeared on the scene contesting an election using citizenship as an issue,” says the 67-year-old.
Earlier this month Hazarika filed an FIR against Ojha for submitting a false educational certificate to support her nomination. Later, her name was cleared. “All this is just a propaganda against me. Who is this Upamanyu Hazarika, anyway? He has been walking into our BJP offices — would a decent man do that?” After the April 7 incident, BJP filed a complaint against Hazarika for “trespassing” and “stealing documents.” Hazarika denied all “ridiculous” claims and continues to walk into BJP offices (most recent being Boko and Dudhnoi) introducing himself to party workers present.
“I will walk in anywhere — to democratise this issue so that our people know what is at stake,” he says.
What is at stake? “The threat that we, the Assamese, will be reduced to a minority between 2040. I have figures to prove it.” In 2015, Hazarika was appointed as a fact-finding commission by the Supreme Court to carry out an investigation on the Indo-Bangla border for encroachment by alleged Bangladeshi infiltrators in Assam. His Prabajan Virodhi Manch (Forum Against Infiltration), which he started in 2012, to fight illegal infiltration has been holding rallies and doing signature campaigns to make the public aware of the impact of migration. In May 2018, 6 lakh signatures were submitted to the Prime Minister to seek reservation of land, job for the indigenous, among other things.
“But to no avail. Political parties are not interested in real safeguards. For the longest time, I was trying to show these parties the road map to fighting for the indigenous cause. But nothing happened. That is why I have gone from activist agenda to electoral agenda,” he says.
Fighting as independent candidate in Guwahati, Hazarika is aware of what he is up against. “But I have great support at the grassroots level, when I go out on the street the sentiment is strong. If various communities can have their own leader, why can’t the indigenous Assamese?”
Counters Congress’s Bobbeeta Sharma, “When people say Upamanyu Hazarika is taking up the cause of the indigenous, I feel they speak with very little knowledge. Who brought NRC? Tarun Gogoi started the process. Every election this foreigner issue is raked up. Congress has always been on the side of the khilonjiyas. It was Rajiv Gandhi who signed the Assam Accord with the All Assam Student Union (AASU) in 1985. And it was only because of the Congress opposition that the Bill was stalled in the Rajya Sabha.”
Last years as protests of the BJP’s Citizenship Bill roiled Assam, at the forefront was the All Assam Student Union — which has its roots in the anti-foreigner Assam Agitation of 1979-85.
“All political parties have failed miserably to solve this problem. It is up to the people of Assam to fight this fight,” says AASU’s general secretary, Samujjal Bhattacharya, refusing to comment on Hazarika’s campaign for the indigenous cause. “Our movement will continue regardless of who comes,” he says.
Hazarika says the victory doesn’t lie in him winning the election alone. “I am not saying I am an alternative. My aim is to change the political discourse — everyone should take up the khilonjiya issue.”