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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Not possible to fight an Assam election only on development, issue of identity is real, crucial: Himanta Sarma

Himanta Biswa Sarma is the BJP's Northeast face and senior Assam minister, who is among the top leaders spearheading the party's campaign in the state. Excerpts from an interview with him at his residence in Guwahati.

Written by Abhishek Saha | Guwahati |
Updated: March 17, 2021 3:41:40 pm
Himanta Biswa Sarma, Himanta Biswa Sarma Assam, Assame election news, Congress Himanta Biswa SarmaHimanta Biswa Sarma is the BJP's Northeast face and senior Assam minister. (Source: @himantabiswa/Twitter)

As Assam’s finance, education and health minister you have been responsible for some of the state government’s big schemes. Which are the most important, according to you?

Orunodoi is directly benefiting 22 lakh women — each getting Rs 830 per month for the last six months directly into their bank account… Along with that, I get immense satisfaction from the fact that we could make education free in government colleges and universities up to the postgraduate level. Every year four lakh students get free admissions, free textbooks up to the undergraduate level, while graduate and postgraduate students get money for purchasing textbooks. This scheme has increased tremendously enrolment ratio in higher education.

Along with that, of course, there are the Ayushman Bharat and our own Atal Amrit Abhijan schemes in the health sector which are giving a lot of coverage to the poor and middle class.

However, your campaign seems to be focused on the ‘threat’ supposedly posed by a particular migrant-origin community.

Assam is a frontier state with a legacy of fighting infiltration right from the days of Partition. So, Assam politics and socio-cultural-economic life have centred or evolved around this topic. Even stalwarts like Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi and Bimala Prasad Chaliha fought on this issue. Yet this issue is unresolved.

So, if you go to Lower Assam today, in a particular Muslim-dominated constituency, they will say we have got all the government schemes but will vote against the BJP. It’s not that we are hostile. We know we will not get votes, but we do not discriminate. We have been equal to everybody — the Assamese (both Hindu and Muslim) and the migrant Muslim community.

These two communities are still at loggerheads for political space… So, in Assam, it’s not possible to fight an election only by focusing on development, because the issue of identity is real. Issue of identity is very, very crucial for socio-economic life. So, you might get free admission, but your monasteries are being encroached upon. You might get Orunodoi, but every day, in your surroundings new people are coming and they are occupying vacant lands.

You and the BJP’s topmost leadership constantly speak about one particular political leader, Badruddin Ajmal.

Ajmal as an individual is nothing. But he symbolises the identity threat. He symbolises that particular culture. We use him as a symbol for a greater evil, therefore we mention him. When we attack Ajmal, people of Assam realise whom we are actually attacking. If tomorrow Ajmal is nowhere, then we might have to name the community.

Today, to maybe avoid the scrutiny of the Election Commission and maintain decorum, we are attacking him as a symbol of our identity issues. But as an individual I have the best of relationship with Ajmal.

But people ask if Himanta Biswa Sarma is against Muslims.

Most of my meetings are attended by Muslims. So, I do not think of myself as a communal politician or against a particular community. You see my track record… from my department, if any community has benefited the maximum, it is the Muslim community. Even during the Covid crisis we gave the best of treatment to people identified to have got the virus from the Tablighi Jamaat (gathering in Delhi). I personally went to meet them after recovery and presented gifts to them.

Because I speak frankly, people outside Assam may think (I am anti-Muslim)… But you talk to any Muslim and ask them… Out of daily 400 visitors who come to meet me, 150-200 are Muslims.

Because today the BJP is in power, people see everything through the prism of Hindutva. But these issues have nothing to do with the BJP coming to power at the Centre. These issues were raised by the Congress back in 1935, when the Congress and Muslim League fought for formation of government. Even hardcore ‘secularists’ like former chief ministers Tarun Gogoi and Hiteswar Saikia, they used to mention these issues.

How do you see the Congress-led ‘grand alliance’?

In name, it is ‘grand’, because they want to camouflage the Congress-AIUDF alliance by calling it a ‘grand alliance’. In seats where it is certain that the BJP will win, they have given a few seats to the Left and then they are saying it is a ‘grand alliance’. I say it is only an alliance between the Congress and AIUDF — with Hagrama (President of Bodoland People’s Front Hagrama Mohilary) having a guest appearance.

Why did the BPF leave the BJP-led alliance?

Mohilary left because we decided not to ally with the BPF. It was a conscious decision. We have the UPPL (United People’s Party Liberal) as a partner. It is not he who took the call, our party took the call.

The reason is very simple — the way he (Mohilary) ran the Bodoland Territorial Council for the last five years and, of late, the way he criticised the Bodo Accord signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi… our alliance became untenable. You cannot have a partner who criticises your PM.

How do you see the two new regional parties, arising from the Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, and their alliance?

They started with a lot of promise. As the election has come close — and it will be a polarised election — they have faded away… The CAA has gone to the backseat. Post-Covid, people of Assam are not discussing the CAA. Because they fear that if there is talk about the CAA, then the agitation will come back. And people are not in a position to afford an agitation either in favour or against the CAA. People suffered a lot during the Covid pandemic.

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi has promised a law to nullify the CAA.

People of Assam are politically mature. Priyanka should not think that people (will) believe that she can nullify a law passed by Parliament… (Smiles) Does she think we do not know anything because we live a remote party of the country?

So, the CAA is not an issue even in Upper Assam, which was the hotbed of the agitation against it in 2019?

The CAA and NRC (National Register of Citizens) are not finding any resonance amongst people. The NRC and Clause 6 of the Assam Accord are very important issues for us and I want personally that these should be discussed. But I can see that people are not listening to this, at least for the time being.

The alliance with Ajmal by the Congress has actually counterbalanced it. If the Congress had thought they had some advantage with the CAA, by aligning with Ajmal they have negated it because the Act is supposedly for Hindu Bengalis… For a regionalist Assamese, if a Hindu Bengali is a problem, equally a Bengali Muslim is a problem. So, aligning with a Bengali Muslim party, you cannot claim to be championing the cause of the people of Assam. That is why, if the Congress had fought the election on its own, without aligning with the AIUDF, they could have legitimately raised the CAA issue.

You had said you will not contest, but you are doing so now.

My not contesting in this election would have sent the wrong message. Any decision contrary to my contesting, at least on the perception level, would have helped the Opposition. Now you have a battle against this Ajmal phenomenon, so I didn’t want to take a risk. When the party decided, I accepted. This is my responsibility towards the state. Had there been no Congress-AIUDF alliance, I would have thought otherwise.

Will we see you in a new role post elections?

You know our party structure. It will be the PM and the party president who will decide such important issues. But one thing is that the state is important, the position is not very important. So, whatever decision is taken by the party, everybody will abide by it. And, there will be no media discussions on it, it will happen silently. Because everybody is on one common note, that we need to work for the state for another five years, over and above individual ambitions.

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