Badruddin Ajmal is two hours late for his address at Kolapakani Char, one of the riverine islands on the Brahmaputra in Assam’s Dhubri district, next to the Bangladesh border.
Dhubri is among the four Assam constituencies that will go to polls on April 23 in the final phase of polling in the state and Ajmal, perfume baron, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief and sitting MP from Dhubri, hopes to secure a third term.
Nearly 4,000 villagers, almost all of them Bengali-speaking Muslims, wait under the scorching sun for Ajmal’s helicopter to arrive.
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District-level leaders of AIUDF tell the gathering that if the BJP is voted to power again, it would “ruin the future” of Muslims. But the crowd is getting impatient.
The Bengal-origin Muslims, who migrated historically from what is now Bangladesh and are commonly referred to as Miya Muslims, along with the Desi Muslims, who are indigenous Muslim inhabitants of the region, form the largest vote bank in Dhubri constituency — approximately 80%. In the neighbouring Barpeta constituency, Miya Muslims account for over 50 per cent of the voters. The AIUDF won both the seats in 2014, along with the Karimganj seat in Barak Valley.
Ajmal’s helicopter lands at 2:40 pm. He takes the stage and asks the crowd, “Are there any Bangladeshis among you?” The crowd shouts “no”. Ajmal then tells the crowd that if the BJP is voted back to power, he will make them “Hindus”. “Will you become Hindus? Will you leave the Koran? Will you shave your beard? Will you stop wearing the skull cap?” The crowd cheers and keeps repeating “No, no, no.”. “We have been Hindustanis, will be and die in Hindustan,” says Ajmal.
Among those cheering is first-time voter Ashraful Islam (19), a second-year BA student at B N College in Dhubri. “He speaks for us, donates in charity, runs orphanages and hospitals. If he is in the Parliament, we know our issues will be heard in Delhi,” says Islam.
In both Dhubri and Barpeta districts, a large population of Bengal-origin Muslims live in riverine islands, locally known as chars. The Brahmaputra routinely eats away the chars, forcing people to migrate every year or two. According to residents, neither Ajmal nor the state government have taken any concrete measure to curb erosion. There are no roads on these islands, most residents live in penury and work as farmers or migrant labourers in Guwahati or other towns. The only means of transport to Dhubri town is a 30-minute boatride.
But apart from development and economic issues, identity-related problems are likely to influence the way these people vote in this election.
Barpeta-based researcher Abdul Kalam Azad, who has worked on chars, says, “Political leaders have never made development a political issue for the people of the chars. Fears regarding identity rule the discourse here.”
In the quagmire surrounding citizenship in Assam, a large number of Muslims in these western Assam districts have been suspected as “Bangladeshis” and referred to Foreigners Tribunals or marked Doubtful (D) voters. The political rhetoric by state BJP leaders, declaring the Bengali-speaking Muslims as a “threat”, has only added to the fears of the community. Senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said last month that the heart of the Na-Axomiya — meaning the new Assamese and referring to Bengal-origin migrant Muslims who write their mother tongue as Assamese during Census — is “with Pakistan and not India”.
Among those at Kolapakani is Naushad Ali (30), who sells clothes in Bongaigaon and Barpeta. “Ajmal saheb does what he can but I will say the chars have not developed in the last ten years. There is no electricity, no roads, no avenues to do business. But we will still vote for him because he is the strongest voice for our community.”
“Who will speak when we are marked D-Voters, if our names are unjustifiably struck off from NRC? Who will speak if we are dragged to detention camps for illegal foreigners? We are Indians and we have the papers, and yet we will be targeted as Bangladeshis. We need Hujoor (as Ajmal is referred to),” adds Ali.
Travelling through Dhubri and speaking to political workers of different parties gives one a sense that the Bengali Hindu votes are consolidated for the BJP. The party has not fielded a candidate in Dhubri and Barpeta, but its alliance partner AGP has. The Congress has lost much of its support base among Dhubri’s Muslims to the AIUDF.
The criticism against its candidate from Dhubri, Abu Taher Bepari, is that he is known to change allegiances — he shifted from the Congress to the BJP and returned to the Congress in 2017.
But in Barpeta, the Congress holds sway. Abdul Khaleque, currently MLA from Barpeta’s Jania constituency, is the party’s candidate. Soheb Ali, a farmer from Kalgachia in Jania, says Khaleque is loved by people because of “development work like roads and bridges”.
So does the Miya community in Barpeta not care for issues related to identity or do they think that Congress will voice it? “For that, Ajmal saheb is there. He will win from Dhubri. In Barpeta, the demography is such that if we vote for the AIUDF, then the anti-BJP-AGP vote will get divided. We want the BJP out. Hence we have to strengthen the Congress candidate,” says Afiqul Islam, a businessman in Barpeta’s Bahari village.
But there are many who don’t think their votes would make a difference. At the New Ghat of Dhubri, Abdus Subur (36) runs a shop and Saifar Ali (36) sells milk. Subur’s sister Mosirun Khatun is a D-voter, so is Ali’s mother Jobeda. Subur will vote for the AIUDF and Ali for the Congress. Ali says, “It doesn’t make a difference who you vote for. Whoever comes to power, legitimate Indians like us will continue to be branded D-Voters and Bangladeshis.”