Assam was an important victory for the BJP from “an ideological point of view”, says BJP leader Ram Madhav. Last week’s grand swearing-in ceremony in Guwahati was intended partly to underscore this point. But if ideology played a role in this election it was neither Hindutva nor the Bharat Mata ki jai brand of nationalism. The victory script was ideologically moored firmly in the history of Assam.
The keyword in BJP’s election campaign was khilonjia — a non-Sanskritic word that means original inhabitant, indigenous or autochthonous. The BJP has promised a khilonjia sarkar.
“A national party with a regional outlook” — former Congress Assam Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia’s formulation — perhaps best captures BJP’s electoral strategy in the state. More than any other politician, Saikia understood the challenges that the Assam Movement presented to the Congress. But the task of keeping the traditional support base of a national political party and appealing to the constituencies of the new regional political forces is formidable. This applies to the Congress as much as to the BJP. For the Congress, the challenge became considerably more difficult after 2005.
A major event that year fundamentally changed Assam’s political landscape. Behind it was an unlikely political actor: The Supreme Court of India. In July 2005, the apex court ruled the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act of 1983 unconstitutional. Enacted as a response to the Assam Movement, the IMDT law made a quasi-judicial process available to anyone whose citizenship status in Assam was in dispute. The law, said the court, encouraged massive illegal migration from Bangladesh to Assam and created “insurmountable difficulties” in the identification of unauthorised immigrants.
The ruling dealt a body blow to a major plank of the Congress’s traditional electoral strategy. In October 2005, Badruddin Ajmal announced the formation of a new political party that became the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). With the end of the IMDT regime, Muslims of East Bengali descent no longer felt secure under the Congress party’s protective umbrella. They turned to Ajmal in large numbers. The emergence of this community as an independent political force — instead of a vote bank — frightened the khilonjia population. This has shaped their choices in all subsequent elections including this one.
Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India was the PIL that invalidated the IMDT law. The rise of Sonowal’s political fortunes is in no small measure the product of this legal victory. It gave him unparalleled credibility as an uncompromising warrior defending khilonjia interests.
The most iconic image of the recent election was a poster with a picture of Sonowal next to Ajmal’s with the question: Whom will you vote for? The khilonjia no longer had to be defined. The contrast between the phenotypic features of the two men said it all. The faces of the leaders of BJP’s partners all made the same point.
Sonowal and the BJP must now leave the battle of images behind. Neither Hindutva, nor good governance, nor inclusive development, can turn this contingent victory into a transformative election.
Assam needs a bold and creative response to its very real citizenship crisis: A product of its hundred-year-old history as a settlement frontier. There is much to be said for the Supreme Court’s efforts, most recently pushing the Assam government to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC). But no court can magically settle this crisis. It ultimately involves questions about the birth of the republic itself; it is a continuation of the debate on the partition of India.
Trying to come to terms with the divide between the BJP’s traditional support base in the Barak Valley and its new khilonjia partners in the Brahmaputra Valley will be a good place to start. The two valleys nurture very different memories of the Partition. The talk of a khilonjia sarkar does not reassure the BJP’s supporters in the Barak Valley, and it certainly does not give confidence to non-Bodos living in areas where the BJP has partnered with the Bodoland People’s Front.
“Sealing” the border or updating the NRC will not resolve this crisis. In all three post-Partition states, a citizenship regime where everyone carries firm documentary proof of citizenship is at best an aspiration. A variety of documents pass as proxy for citizenship papers. Proxy documents are bound to compromise the NRC process. Many non-elite khilonjias may have far less documentary evidence of citizenship than those labeled illegal immigrants. Widespread disillusionment is not an unlikely outcome of the NRC process.
Assuming for the moment that all illegal immigrants can be identified, how does the government plan to convince Bangladesh that they are all their citizens?
To be able to resolve this crisis one must accept that the Partition did not create two, and subsequently three, bounded nation-states, each functioning on a container model of national sovereignty. That is not the ground reality of the Partition’s eastern borders.
Modi’s promise of cooperative federalism will have to extend beyond the economic realm. National security today is mostly a function of smart border management; it does not have to depend on fences and walls. One cannot address Assam’s citizenship crisis without Bangladesh’s cooperation. We need an ambitious diplomatic initiative, perhaps a Look West Policy, focused on managing this post-Partition border as a soft border. An Indo-Bangladesh protocol on labour movement for example, can take some of the pressure away from the circular migrant who has no other option but to look for security by procuring proxy citizenship papers and finding a political patron. It could significantly reduce strains on Assam’s legal and political institutions. A soft border regime could create a stable and legitimate political order in one of South Asia’s last settlement frontiers.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Return of the native’)