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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Sushmita Dev: ‘CAA, polarisation are vote bank tools of BJP… Jobs biggest issue’

Currently president of the All India Mahila Congress, Sushmita Dev represented Silchar seat in Barak till she was defeated by the BJP’s Rajdeep Roy in the 2019 general elections.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Silchar |
Updated: March 30, 2021 10:01:17 am
Sushmita Dev, Sushmita Dev interview, Sushmita Dev Assam elections, Assam polls, Sushmita Dev Congress, Indian ExpressSushmita Dev addresses a public meeting in Balipipla ahead of the Assam elections. (Twitter/@sushmitadevinc)

The daughter of seven-time parliamentarian Santosh Mohan Dev, the widely popular Sushmita Dev is considered the face of the Congress in Assam’s largely Bengali-speaking Barak Valley, which goes to vote on April 1. Last month, Sushmita is said to have walked out of a party meeting in Guwahati unhappy over selection of candidates and seat-sharing with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, which the Congress has partnered with in this election.

Currently president of the All India Mahila Congress, Dev represented Silchar seat in Barak till she was defeated by the BJP’s Rajdeep Roy in the 2019 general elections. Excerpts from an interview:

There were rumours of you quitting the Congress over seat-sharing in Barak Valley. What happened?

Nothing happened. If you have to compromise your karmabhoomi, where you work, your soil… if you have to compromise and give it to others, it will hurt you. So it hurt me. But I always bow to the high command, and I did this time too. If I am not going to fight for my territory, who will? Let me give you an example. It’s like you live in a five-bedroom house, and suddenly, you have to give up two bedrooms… Won’t you feel bad? Won’t you fight for it, rather than letting in an outsider? But if your mother says no, give it away, it is for the greater interest of the household, then you would.

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But is it true you resigned or wanted to resign?

No, not at all. That the TV channels ran. I never resigned.

The Congress is facing a lot of criticism for allying with the ‘communal’ AIUDF.

If there is a party that is openly communal, it is the BJP. The fact that the BJP is making such a big issue of the (Congress-AIUDF) alliance tells you that they don’t have any answers on the real issues. They have been in power for five years in Assam and seven years at the Centre, and all they are talking about is our alliance. It means they are nervous… We are not nervous. The Congress is a party which never says we come to power with the vote of one vote bank. We are an inclusive party and we seek every community, caste and religion’s vote. Believe me, if Assam has to be saved from communal politics, then Assam has to be saved from the BJP.

Sushmita Dev, Sushmita Dev interview, Sushmita Dev Assam elections, Assam polls, Sushmita Dev Congress, Indian Express Sushmita Dev during a padyatra in Silchar (Twitter/@sushmitadevinc)

However, do you support the fears that the alliance with the AIUDF would alienate the Congress’s Hindu support base, already upset over the party’s opposition to the CAA, even further in Barak Valley? At the same time, the party will lose its Muslim supporters to the AIUDF, which has a presence in Barak Valley.

So, the BJP partnered with the AGP, the people who historically led the Assam Andolan. So then why did Bengalis vote for the BJP? Sonowal (Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal) is the man who took to the streets during the Assam Agitation — which was seen as a language agitation. So, the question is, is the BJP pro-Bengali then?

About losing Muslim support… I don’t think so. If you look at the margins by which we lost the seats with AIUDF candidates on previous occasions, it was a few thousand votes here and there. One more example… in 2014 (Lok Sabha polls), when the AIUDF put up a candidate against me, I won by a margin of 30,000-odd votes. In 2019, the AIUDF didn’t put up a candidate against me, I lost (smiles)… In politics, two and two is not always four, two and two can also be five. So we will see when the time comes.

There is an oft-heard complaint that Barak Valley is neglected vis-a-vis Brahmaputra Valley.

Barak Valley is a landlocked area. We have Meghalaya on one side, Tripura, Mizoram and Bangladesh on the other. To go to our capital (Dispur), we have to go through Meghalaya. This is one reason… that there is a geographical disadvantage vis-a-vis the rest of Assam. Second is that Barak Valley has a different history as compared to the rest of Assam. We have a history with Bangladesh, the creation of Bangladesh and the Partition impacted us. (As part of redrawing of boundaries at the time, most of Assam’s Bengali-speaking Sylhet was made part of East Pakistan except Karimganj, which was retained and included in Assam, despite having little or no cultural ties with the state. Karimganj and two other districts now comprise Barak Valley.)

But that cultural difference cannot be viewed as animosity. When the Assam Agitation happened, there was no agitation in Barak Valley. It is not like we look down on their (the Assamese residents of Brahmaputra Valley) culture, neither do they look down on ours. They look up to their culture and we look up to ours.

What are the issues the Congress is fighting on in Barak Valley?

Jobs is the biggest issue and I have come to this conclusion not on the basis of news but the Assam Bachao Yatra we did. Everywhere I went, unemployment was the biggest issue that kept hitting me. It did not matter which age group — parents were complaining, grandparents were complaining and so were the young people. And that is a big agenda for us this election.

We are economically behind as compared to the rest of Assam because we don’t have any industry here. Even the third- and fourth-grade jobs in offices of Barak Valley… our young people can’t secure. You don’t need massive qualifications for it, but they have been totally deprived by this government.

And the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA)?

I have always maintained that India as a country cannot leave people Stateless. I want a constitutional solution to this. The BJP has posed the CAA as the solution but I don’t think it’s a complete solution. Everybody in Assam applied under the NRC asserting their citizenship. But if they now go under the CAA (a process to speed up citizenship for immigrants), they have to admit they are foreigners. How is that possible?

Barak Valley people reacted the way they did to the CAA because they thought it was a protective shield. The BJP came up with the Bill at a time when Bengalis were fearful of the NRC… how in Hindi they say, ‘Doobte ko tinke ka sahara (the last hope of a sinking man)’. But now, as things emerge, how the BJP has stopped talking about the CAA, how the rules have not been framed… people have realised the Act is a tool. A vote-bank tool.

Do you think the polarising rhetoric the BJP has created in Barak Valley will harm you further, now as well as in 2024, when you contest?

This time our majority vote is going to go up, you watch.

Kaath ki handi baar baar nahin chadti (you can’t keep flogging a dead horse), and people have realised that. Polarisation is just the BJP’s tool, that is now jaded. Jobs and unemployment are the biggest issues, and so is the kind of corruption the BJP has done. All their candidates in Barak Valley are ‘Syndicate Kings’ (the Congress has been accusing that Cachar in Barak Valley is a conduit for illegal trade of items from Myanmar, by BJP representatives). All are Himanta Biswa Sarma’s Syndicate partners. And the people of Barak Valley will reject that.

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